HS2 ‘badly off course’ with bosses ‘blindsided’, MPs say

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Leaders of the HS2 rail project have been “blindsided by contact with reality”, a report by MPs has found.

The Public Accounts Committee accused HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) of lacking transparency and undermining public confidence.

The committee’s report said HS2 was “badly off course” and urged the government to regularly update Parliament with “accurate” information.

The DfT said the project has been “comprehensively reset”.

Among its conclusions, the cross-party committee questioned evidence given by DfT permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly and HS2 Ltd executives Mark Thurston and Michael Bradley.

The report said the trio’s appearance before MPs in March 2020 “raised questions about the previous picture provided by the witnesses of the project’s health” last year.

It said the DfT and HS2 Ltd “were aware of the scale of the issues facing the programme as early as October 2018”.

The report said Ms Kelly “withheld from us that the programme was in significant difficulty” during appearances in 2018 and 2019, “even in response to specific questions”.

It also said HS2 Ltd’s annual report and accounts “similarly failed to give an accurate account of the programme’s problems”.

‘Hiding problems’

Spiralling costs have prompted criticism of the project – granted the go-ahead by the government in February.

The cost set out in the 2015 Budget was just under £56bn, but one independent estimate has put the eventual cost as high as £106bn.

Committee chairman Meg Hillier said that, for example, the cost of community commitments in the first phase of the project had risen from £245m to £1.2bn.

Ms Hillier said: “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,” she added.

“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.”

Deputy chairman Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said the report was “one of the most critical, in both the transparency of government and the handling of a project, that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee”.

‘New approach’

A DfT spokesperson said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps “has been clear that this project must go forward with a new approach to parliamentary reporting, with clear transparency, strengthened accountability to ministers, and tight control of costs”.

“We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner,” they added.

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Media captionJohnson: Cabinet has given HS2 “green signal”

The spokesperson also highlighted the appointment of a dedicated HS2 minister and the new six-monthly reports to Parliament.

The DfT statement added Ms Kelly had acknowledged cost pressures in May 2019 and that discussions between the government and HS2 Ltd “were active and commercially confidential”.

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