The Government have published their High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill, without saying how much extra money they actually want and asking that figures for actual spend on the project are not published until after the next election.
The Bill is required so that Parliament can give authority for more money to be spent on pre-construction activity, acquiring property, and providing compensation. Of course none of these items are new and unexpected, meaning it is clear that more money than had previously been budgeted for is required. The guidance notes accompanying the Bill state;
“.. it is envisaged that significant expenditure will need to be incurred in preparation for HS2. Chapter 2 of HM Treasury’s document Managing Public Money explains that Ministers must normally seek Parliamentary authority for specific legislation to empower any significant new commitment which seems likely to persist, in advance of securing powers in primary legislation.”
Unfortunately the Department for Transport have no idea how much money they want, and as such point 16 of the notes asks for a blank cheque:
“It is not possible to give a definitive figure for expenditure that will result as a consequence of this Bill.”
It also seems that the cheque will be blank in more than just the traditional sense of the phrase. Clause 2 of the bill intends to “ensure that Parliament is informed of all anticipatory expenditure.” by producing annual accounts. However, no matter when the ‘first’ financial year would start, it would not end until 31st March 2015. At the very latest, Parliament would dissolve just a fortnight later on 13th April 2015, meaning there would be no chance of this ‘first set’ of annual accounts being published before the next General Election.
Cynically, it is expected that the Government hope that some MPs on the route of HS2 who are opposed to the project or route would vote for the Bill, because it says more money will be available for compensation, but the Bill does not contain any specifics of any compensation schemes. A final compensation scheme would still not be available until after Hybrid Bills for HS2 had been passed, meaning the Exceptional Hardship Scheme which 75% of applicants have been turned down on would remain in place.
The Bill has been announced just three days before the National Audit Office publish their report into HS2 (due Thursday 14th May). A previous report into HS1 concluded that ‘hugely optimistic assumptions’ had been made in justifying the project. This led to the Public Accounts Committee warning that the same mistakes were being made with HS2 as had been made with HS1.
Also expected this week is the start of the consultation on the Phase 1 Environmental Statement and during the month, the annual report of the Major Projects Authority, who rated HS2 as an “Amber-Red’ risk, meaning “Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.”
Stop HS2 Campaign Manager Joe Rukin said:
“Sadly, the Department for Transport have been totally predictable with their Paving Bill. Beforehand, we said they would be asking for a blank cheque so they could carry on with complete disregard to both due process and budgetary control, and that is exactly what they have come up with. To ask for a blank cheque is a disgrace, but to ask for one on the basis that no-one will know how much extra has been spent on HS2 until after the next election, is beyond words.”
“We have already seen MPs along the route of HS2 welcome the Bill because it is going to make more money available for compensation, and they see this as something that might get them out of rebelling when it comes to a vote. They have to get real, this is a shamelessly transparent con. There is no new compensation scheme on the table, and the one which has been operating, and will continue to do so has told three-quarters of applicants to get lost. Nothing will change with this Bill, the only place the money is going to go is into the pockets of the consultants responsible for HS2 going so badly over budget already.”
Penny Gaines, chair of Stop HS2 said
“As Stop HS2 expected, the High Speed Rail (Preparation) bill is a blank cheque book. It allows an unlimited amount of expenditure on HS2, with no Parliamentary scrutiny of that expenditure until after the next election. Worse than that, it allows the Secretary of State to ignore the Hybrid Bill process in deciding where, when and how to spend money on high speed rail.”
“This is not just about high speed rail. Anyone who is concerned about the use of taxpayer’s money being spent on environmentally damaging schemes should be horrified at this bill.”
The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill and guidance notes can be found via these links: