On Wednesday 13th March we got to see Allan Cook in public for the first time, as the new chairman of HS2 Ltd was questioned by the Transport Select Committee in Parliament. Cook explained that he had been interviewed at the same time as Terry Morgan, and when he was sacked after just four months into the job, HS2 Ltd went straight to their second choice.
It soon became clear that he might not have originally got the job due to sending the interview panel to sleep, as Cook displayed a remarkable ability to witter and waffle forever, and peppered his diatribes with the standard HS2 Ltd soundbites such as “Rebalance the economy”, “It’s not either/or, we need both” and of course that HS2 has “Strong levels of support”. Demonstrating he is truly the new boy, Cook genuinely said that the way forward for HS2 Ltd is to “Constantly communicate and be as open and transparent as possible”.
It was clear he’d been given some coaching, though whether it worked was very debatable. It was obvious he had been told he had to talk about communities, but he seemed to have completely misunderstood this point. When he said he’s spent a lot of time with communities in the eight weeks he’s been in the job, it took a while for people to realise that he didn’t mean the communities along the route, but the business community.
That didn’t make the cut of our highlights video, and neither did: his admission that building wind farms along the route wouldn’t be enough to power HS2; his insistence that the Eastern leg of HS2 will benefit Scotland, even though classic compatible services aren’t planned to go that way; that there won’t be delays to the parliamentary process, even though the HS2 Ltd website still says Phase 2a should have passed last year; that HS2 will somehow increase freight paths, when the Rail Freight Group say the opposite; that he’s not worried about the fact if HS2 Ltd are just 1% out with the amount of spoil they need to shift that would need 250,000 extra lorry movements; and a whole load of waffle. Waffle, waffle, waffle!
Two MPs really stole the show, SNP MP Ronnie Cowan and Tory Jack Brereton. Brereton showed remarkable restraint, first when Cook evaded his question about the time/scope/cost triangle three times by waffling the content of the question back at him, and then when Cook remarkably got ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ mixed up. This not only saw Brereton use the word ‘budget’ three times when he asked his question about off-the-books-costs a second time to try and make it exceptionally clear he was talking about costs. When Cook still didn’t get it, committee chair Lilian Greenwood did an impression of a primary school teacher, feeling the need to explain the difference between ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’. When Cook eventually got the point, he admitted it would be (though ‘is’ is more accurate) ‘wrong’ and ‘disingenuous’ to include benefits in the HS2 business case when the associated costs are not included.
No, really, just watch the clip!
— Stop HS2 (@stophs2) March 15, 2019
Ronnie Cowan certainly made the most important point as he got Cook to make it clear that HS2 Ltd have not yet received ‘Notice to Proceed’, confirming that anyone who says construction has started on HS2 has actually been outsmarted by Chris Grayling. To get notice to proceed, HS2 must be able to demonstrate; management capability, the affordability of contracts, and the robustness of a revised business case, however Cook later said that HS2 Ltd are not working on a new business case at all!
WATCH: This is when @theSNP MP @ronniecowan gets the new @HS2Ltd chairman to effectively admit that anyone who thinks they’ve started building #HS2 has actually been conned by Chris #FailingGrayling, as they’ve not yet been given #Notice to Proceed’ with construction #StopHS2 pic.twitter.com/4VYZG9fjwy
— Stop HS2 (@stophs2) March 15, 2019
In that exchange with Cowan, Cook stated categorically that HS2 Ltd have spent £4.6bn which is less than the £5.5bn that has been recently reported, and that he wasn’t worried about their being any legal challenges over the procurement process, less than a fortnight after the most recent legal challenge over the procurement process was launched.
Cook also told Cowan that he felt that the “level of support is very supportive”, but they have a lot of work to prove that the general public are wrong about HS2. When Cowan pointed out that HS2 Ltd have dropped a commitment on making bridges wide enough to carry cycle paths, this was news to Cook.
Perhaps the most surprising thing from the committee was the reaction of its chair, Lilian Greenwood. Greenwood has been a serial HS2 cheerleader and apologist ever since back when she held Labours’ shadow transport brief, and regularly appears at events with Cook and others from HS2 Ltd in support of the project. Not only was she clearly getting annoyed with Cook failing to answer the questions of others, and there was that whole thing when she actually had to explain the difference between costs and benefits to him, but after he said there won’t be a new business case she ended up feeling the need to explain why the 2015 cost estimate of £55.7bn has to be updated at some point. After initially trying to evade answering that query, Cook pretty pinned the blame for not updating the costs squarely on the shoulders of Chris Grayling.
In addition to the two twitter videos above, and the one we published yesterday, below is our full highlights video. It really is quite shocking.