On what was surely had been orchestrated to be a set piece ‘good news’ day for HS2 as part of the Government ‘fight back’ to win over public opinion, Sir David Higgins has been so off-message in his first day dealing with the media as Chairman of HS2 Ltd, that by 11am he was cancelling interviews, after admitting that he intends to spend more than the current monthly cost of £100,000 on public relations for HS2.
The day started off with the news that HS2 Ltd intend to spend £20m on the “First new college in 20 years”, to support the 2,000 apprentices who will supposedly be needed to build HS2. While it is easy to dismiss this as a gimmick which has been cooked up as part of the increasingly desperate attempts to say anything which makes HS2 seem like a better idea, it seems not to pay attention to the courses available already in the UK to train rail engineers to the highest standards. Not only did this announcement come on the same day as Herriot-Watt University announced plans to extend its’ department to create the worlds largest high speed rail research centre, but the Government also seem to have forgotten about the Network Rail college, conveniently cited opposite a field which HS2 is planned to go through on the outskirts of Coventry, and of course the Crossrail Academy.
There are a couple of obvious reasons for forgetting the Crossrail, or to give it its full title, the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy. First of course is that it isn’t 20 years old, but because like other recent education and training providers as it wasn’t incorporated under the 1992 Education Act, Government believe they can spin that the HS2 college would be the first one for 20 years. The other very good reason for ignoring TUCA is that despite Crossrail is still to achieve its’ target of providing 400 apprenticeships, TUCA is intended to provide training for 3,500 people, or 1,100 more than the combined total of apprenticeships HS2 and Crossrail are claiming they will provide. The most bizarre fact surrounding the HS2 college story is that it is not due to open before HS2 construction is scheduled to start in 2017.
The Association of Teachers & Lecturers has since commented:
“The Government should be helping FE colleges to provide engineering and requisite skills. The need for an HS2 college may show there should be a review of how vocational education and training fits into wider industrial policy and skills development. The government seems to think that inventing new schools and colleges is the answer to everything.”
With the college story setting the scene for a fightback, it was Higgins turn to step into the limelight, but from the start was woefully off message. On the issue of the college he told the Guardian “The sheer length of the project means we can offer people a rewarding career in engineering staying in this country”, however he completely undermined this by telling the Financial Times: “The thing I want to focus on is how can we deliver it [HS2] sooner.”
Sir David Higgins hedging his bets
When his appointment was announced, it was heralded that he would be required to substantially reduce costs, after being in charge of the Olympics which came in at a cost of £9.3bn after an initial budget of £2.4bn. However, he has now played down the chance that his review into costs, due to report in March, will deliver big savings. In fact, it is the concept of delivering the project more quickly which is meant to deliver savings by removing inflationary pressures. This approach might work if the concept of inflation had been incorporated into HS2 costs, which are all based on 2011 prices.
In scenes reminiscent of when HS2 Ltd CEO Alison Munro floundered on BBC Three Counties Radio, Higgins was undone by another clued-up local radio presenter, this time on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire. By the time he had finished that interview in which he admitted he intended to spend more money on PR, he had started cancelling other interviews.
Keen to insist to Annie Othen that the West Coast Mainline is a 170 year old railway line ‘built cheaply’ at the same time as admitting £8bn was recently spent on it, he also got in a right mess about how many services would go from Euston to Coventry after HS2. Responding to the assertion, clearly stated in documents from HS2 Ltd, that Coventry would lose services after HS2 is completed he said;
“The existing line will have a lot more capacity because you are taking 18 train paths per hour away from the existing line and putting them on the new line.”
This of course was a completely unreasonable statement, because out of the 18tph (which is impossible using current technologies) due to use HS2, trains to Nottingham, Leeds and Sheffield do not use the West Coast Mainline, whilst trains to Manchester branch off at Rugby via Stafford, avoiding Coventry. However those 18tph to be cancelled do include the 3 fast trains per hour which call at Coventry on the way to Euston, so how they can be cut without being cut still remains a mystery.
A telling question came in from Nikki Sinclaire MEP, who had asked how HS2 Ltd could justify spending £100,000 per month on PR. Higgins, who at earns more in a day (£950) than the Stop HS2 Campaign Manager earns in a month responded:
“Communication is one of the big things we are going to have to do, and whether it is a major project here or internationally, one thing you know is you can’t underdo communication, so yes we will spend money on communication to explain the message clearly, so I don’t have any concern whatsoever on spending money on communicating at this stage. Where the mistakes happen is where you don’t communicate. We’ll put a huge effort into communication with the public and politicians to make sure there is consensus on this major project.”
On the subject of Network Rail debt, which increased while Higgins was in charge there, he said:
“Every major infrastructure company in the world is most efficiently funded by debt… These infrastructure projects are suited to debt because of the long term earning stream.”
This of course ignores the fact that the National Audit Office reported that HS1 will cost the tax-payer £10bn more than forecast because the passenger numbers which were meant to represent the ‘long term earning stream’ never materialised. Despite saying he will report into potential cost savings for HS2 in two months time, Higgins admitted that he hadn’t as yet gone through the details of HS2 finances, whilst confidently stating that HS2 should be delivered for a budget which is already three years out of date.
“The £50bn, which is the 2011 budget for rolling stock and the project, I haven’t gone through all the plans, but I can’t see why it can’t be delivered for that.”
Just as Higgins finished this interview, it became apparent he was already cancelling further interviews, with Roger Hawes, the editor of the Bucks Herald tweeting that he would now not be available for them, suggesting a further dipping into the HS2 media training budget.
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:
“The message from the new chair of HS2 Ltd is clear, it is full steam ahead with more spin and more debt, with as many contradictory statements as possible thrown in to try and con the public into buying HS2. Is our national debt not bad enough without this vanity project? Is it not bad enough that £100,000 per month is already being spent just on PR for HS2? In both cases the answer from Sir David Higgins seems to be ‘No it’s not bad enough, and it is going to get worse’.”
“Higgins on one hand is saying he will produce a report about HS2 costs in just two months, but on the other hand is saying he hasn’t studied the figures yet. As such anything he produces is going to be like everything else which has come out of HS2 Ltd, a rushed job which can’t be trusted. It is clear Higgins hasn’t grasped the fundamental facts about HS2, so he should fit in perfectly at HS2 Ltd.”