HS2, the scandal that keeps on giving.

This article by Andrew Bridgen MP was first published on Conservative Home.

It has never been clearer than now that HS2 is a complete mess. There has already been a thirteen month delay in phase one getting signed off for ‘Notice to Proceed’ because the projects has been unable to demonstrate management capability, affordability of contracts and the robustness of the business case. Add to that the fact that both the former and current chairmen have admitted that it can’t be delivered on time on budget and to scope, and becomes clear that HS2 should be immediately cancelled before any more money is wasted on it.

With cancellation a very real possibility, we have seen supporters of the project scramble in desperation to prop it up. We’ve seen baseless rhetoric with buzz words like ‘essential’, ‘transformative’ and ‘game-changer’ thrown around without any foundation. We’ve seen made up jobs figures that suggest a slightly improved transport system could almost eradicate unemployment. We’ve seen suggestions that a project which is being lobbied for by airports will somehow reduce aviation. And to play to the anxieties of commuters stuck in crush hour, we’ve ridiculous unfounded, undeliverable and uncosted promises that ‘freed up capacity’ will be a panacea for the rail network, forgetting to mention the intention to cut inter-city services to stations not on the HS2 route to a value of £11bn.

In the recent heatwave, we even saw HS2 Ltd go so far as to claim they could change the laws of physics themselves, as their services will be impervious to the extremes of weather. Though the most ridiculous claim of all is the one that cancelling HS2 would be somehow be national embarrassment. To anyone outside the Westminster Bubble and the satellite bubbles HS2 would connect it to, HS2 has long been a national embarrassment, a fast train for fat cats that has somehow survived a decade of austerity. Following the news of even more cost escalations, gagging of whistle-blowers and assertions that the true costs of the project have been kept secret and parliament misled for years, it is now a national scandal.

Back in May, a damning House of Lords inquiry found that HS2 was unlikely to be built within the current £55.7bn budget, and that “the costs do not appear to be under control”. Last week we found out just how far out of control those costs are, when it was revealed that the new HS2 Ltd chairman Allan Cook has written to the DfT to say the project will more likely cost between £70 and £85bn.

This came of no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention as HS2 has lurched from one disaster to another over the last decade. With six straight ‘amber-red’ ratings from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, HS2 has consistently been the worst run project on the Government books. The problem has been that there have been so few of us paying attention, and when the project has been subject to scrutiny, such as the report leaked last year which said HS2 would already be considered as failed by any internationally recognised measure, it has been suppressed and dismissed.

Whilst it has been clear to the public for years that HS2 isn’t needed, is a waste of money and has been a complete mess from the get-go, up until now in Government circles HS2 has been immune to any form of criticism. This has been essential from the start, because as the project was given the original go-ahead without any assessment as to what the transport network actually needed, after it had been lobbied for by those who want to make money out of building it and the associated land-grab around the stations, it lacked substance and had to be promoted with hype and bombast. As Sir Rod Eddington warned in his 2006 transport study, the pursuit of icons is not a healthy or sensible way of deciding transport priorities.

With HS2 Ltd being such a chaotic organisation, paying highly inflated wages but still unable to stem a massive staff turnover, it has always been odd that so few whistle-blowers have come forward. The one notable exception so far has been Doug Thornton, who claims he was sacked from HS2 Ltd for refusing to tell the board the multi-billion pound lie that all was well with the land property acquisition estimates. The worry has always been that we only know about Thornton because he said ‘no’.

Now, many parliamentary colleagues are convinced that what was already known to be £2.6m worth of unauthorised redundancy payments made by former HS2 Ltd CEO Simon Kirby, were actually payoffs to silence whistle-blowers. Not only that, but we are getting the impression that this new £70-85bn estimate for the cost of HS2, is not so new after all but is actually the ‘real’ figure that came out of the 2015 Spending Review, or at the very least it was known before Phase 1 of HS2 received Royal Assent in 2017. This seems totally believable, as it is simply not credible to imagine that a potential £30bn over-run has just appeared by magic in the last couple of months and must put the current estimate very near the £100bn that I was ridiculed for saying HS2 would cost. Looking back the semantics are notable in that for years the DfT have staunchly defended ‘budget’ for HS2 of £55.7bn, not an ‘estimated cost’ of £55.7bn.

With former chair of the Rail Freight Group Lord Berkeley saying that HS2 Ltd is ‘rampant with fraud’, and several other parliamentary colleagues very angry and determined to get to the bottom of this, it is clear that this scandal will not go away and HS2 will always be tarnished by it. One also has to ask that if we have been misled about the cost of HS2, what else has been said in support of the project that has no basis in reality? I would say almost everything.

With Brexit dominating everything at the moment, it is sometimes hard to see a time when other issues will hog the headlines. But if it is allowed to continue, HS2 will still be around generating negative headlines for years to come. At this point in time the Prime Minister has a brief window of opportunity to cancel this gargantuan white elephant, otherwise he runs the risk of HS2 being the scandal that will keep on giving throughout his premiership.

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