HS2’s costs and potential delays are running out of control, warn MPs | UK news

The HS2 high-speed rail project has gone “badly off course” and further cost increases and delays cannot be ruled out because of the way it is being managed, according to an excoriating report by the parliamentary spending watchdog published on Sunday.

The hard-hitting assessment by the all-party public accounts committee (PAC) accuses the Department for Transport of hiding information about cost overruns and delays from MPs, in a way that has undermined confidence in the entire scheme.

The committee says it cannot be sure that there will be no further cost increases, as the lessons from previous transport projects that have been dogged by spiralling bills and delays have not been learned.

In particular the MPs claim they were misled by the permanent secretary at the department, Bernadette Kelly, when she appeared before them in May 2019. By then, they say, she had been informed by Hs2 Ltd that it could not deliver phase one of the project – between London and Birmingham – to budget and on schedule. But when questioned she failed to pass on the information to the committee, they say.

The committee chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said: “The committee is concerned about how open the department and HS2 Ltd executives have been in their account of this project. It is massively over budget and delayed before work has even begun. There is no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from parliament and the taxpayer.

“The department and HS2 appear to have been blindsided by contact with reality – when phase one started moving through parliament, the predicted costs of necessary commitments to the communities affected have exploded from £245m to £1.2bn.

“The government unfortunately has a wealth of mistakes on major transport infrastructure to learn from, but it does not give confidence that it is finally going to take those lessons when this is its approach.

The deputy chair, Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, was even more outspoken, accusing the department of a breach of its duty to parliament: “This report is one of the most critical that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

A computer image of the proposed new Euston station for HS2.

A computer image of the proposed new Euston station for HS2. Photograph: Grimshaw architects

“The permanent secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the department it had breached the terms of the development agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule – yet the permanent secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble.

“This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to parliament and hence to the public, which will undermine confidence. Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform parliament that value for money on the project was at risk.

The report says HS2 Ltd’s annual report and accounts for the year ending 31 March 2019 similarly failed to give an accurate account of the programme’s problems.

Because of delays to the original timetable, passengers will not see the benefits from phase one between London and the West Midlands until 2029 at the earliest, compared to the original plan of 2026.

As of March 2019, £7.4bn had been spent. Much of the work done so far has been on paper: detailed engineering designs of the length of the route, years of public consultation, and legislation. Officially launched by Labour in 2009, HS2 was reviewed and tweaked by the coalition government and green-lighted in 2012.

So far money has been spent on detailed engineering designs of the length of the route, years of public consultation, and legislation. Buying land along the route, either for direct demolition or to relieve blighted homeowners, has accounted for a large total of the £7.4bn invested to date.

In terms of physical activity, so-called preparatory works have started, although no track or tunnel has yet been built. At the southern end, HS2 has demolished housing estates, parks and office blocks around Euston, and started moving tens of thousands of skeletons out of the way.

Train depots and industrial estates have been razed to build another HS2 station at Old Oak Common, while brownfield sites in Birmingham have been levelled for the Curzon Street station and approach. According to HS2, work has taken place at 250 sites, including archaeological digs and tree planting as well as construction.

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The report says passengers in the north “will have to wait much longer while the government decides the future of the northern sections of the railway. As well as cost increases and delays, public confidence in the programme has been undermined.”

The report adds: “Now that the government has given the programme the green light, things must change and there must be much greater transparency in future.”

The HS2 programme aims to construct a new high-speed, high-capacity railway between London, Leeds and Manchester, via the West Midlands. The Department for Transport is the programme sponsor while HS2 Ltd is the body responsible for delivering the programme.

Responding to the report, a spokesperson for right-leaning thinktank the Institute for Economic Affairs, said: “It’s absolutely scandalous that the government hid HS2’s problems from taxpayers and MPs. If the delays and ballooning budget had been revealed earlier there would have been more pressure to cancel this ill-conceived project, potentially saving over £100bn.”

The MPs also raise serious concerns about the development of Euston station to serve HS2 passengers and asks that the department write to the committee within six months setting out how it plans to develop the station.

Source link