Earlier this week the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, refused to answer questions from Treasury Sub Committee of MPs as to whether he though HS2 Ltd were competent, and denied that there was a blank cheque for HS2.
In an exchange which started just after Macpherson said he’d “always welcome scrutiny”, he was asked specific detailed questions about the HS2 project.
On the increase in HS2 budget from £33bn to £42bn, Andrea Leadsom asked him to explain why the original “30% optimism bias is completely spent and a further 30% continguancy is now required on the project”.
Macpherson replied that he didn’t “want to say something I regret” and asked to write a letter to the committee instead of answering.
Questioned further, he refused to answer whether he thought HS2 Ltd was competent with such a major infrastructure project, leading to the suggestion that he was trying to avoid being “mean to HS2 Ltd”.
Eventually he said he did not want to answer in public but “if our conclusion is that improvements can be made we will be communicating that very clearly to the relevant people. What I think is difficult for me is to set out what is going on in public, because there are some things you can make more progress on behind closed doors.”
He added “If problems emerge we are not going to tinker around the edges,” stating “there will be a lot of opportunities for the government to review the policy… We have not signed a blank cheque.’
If MPs pass the Paving Bill, which has no limit on expenditure on high speed rail projects, there will be a blank cheque book available to HS2 Ltd. Macpherson might be able to claim there is no blank cheque now, but he must be aware that this could change within a few months.
As one commentator said “His evidence to the Select Committee, following on the leaking to the press by a ‘top Treasury official’ of an analysis that, when inflation is included, the cost of the project could be £73bn, will have made for some interesting discussions in Whitehall.”
This evidence session also ties in with reports that Treasury officials are briefing against the HS2 project.
Whatever the Coalition politicians are saying, it’s clear that there is increasing scepticism about the HS2 project from within the Westminster.