As Icarus would tell you – were it not for the considerable communication handicap of him being mythical and, at the very least, dead – flying too close to the sun can be a precarious occupation. When it comes to high flyers, nobody appears to soar into the stratosphere quite as far as Sir David Higgins, past Chief Executive of the London 2012 Summer Olympics Delivery Authority and newly-appointed Chairman of HS2 Ltd. He is the man who, single-handedly it appears, was responsible for delivering the 2012 Summer Olympics on time and on budget. This is an impressive claim, but has been perhaps overhyped, since the project should never had been started if there was the remotest possibility of it not being delivered on time, and the budget to which Sir David was working was considerably inflated from the one originally set for the project.
Notwithstanding, Sir David emerged from the events of the summer of 2012 as a superhero of galactic proportions, a status that has even survived his subsequent appointment as Chief Executive of Network Rail – possibly not a move that might be expected to be totally beneficial to anyone’s CV. He appears to be loved by politicians of all colours. The plaudit delivered by HS2’s biggest fan, Lord Adonis, speaking in the Lords Second Reading debateon the HS2 paving bill is typical:
“I also applaud the decision to appoint Sir David Higgins as chair of HS2. The biggest infrastructure project in Europe needs the best infrastructure manager available. Sir David Higgins, fresh from delivering the 2012 Olympics on time and on budget, is the very best.” (column 909)
In what could reasonably be seen as a reaction to criticism of the budget for HS2 made by Shadow Chancellor, the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, in his speech to the Labour Party Conference last autumn, Sir David was given a brief to report to the Transport Secretary on, in the words of the Department for Transport press release, “how to reduce the £42.6 billion cost of the scheme”. That same press release promised that Sir David would publish the report of his findings “in March, before the second reading of the Hybrid Bill”.
To recap on that Labour Conference speech, the Shadow Chancellor said that the HS2 project “has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion”. He accused the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of wishing to “go full steam ahead” with HS2 “no matter how much the costs spiral up and up”. In contrast, he claimed, “Labour will not take this irresponsible approach” and that he, should he become Chancellor, he will not write a “blank cheque … for this project or for any project”.
According to Mr Balls, the question that should be asked about HS2 is “not just whether a new High Speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country”.
Whilst there has been some evidence since the Labour Party Conference that the Shadow Chancellor has had not a little difficulty in making his views prevail within a Labour Party that does not wish to upset its representatives from the three big cities north of London that HS2 would serve, he persists in muttering about the costs of the project and appears to have retained his scepticism. This leaves Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, having to reaffirm Labour’s support for the HS2 project at every opportunity.
I fear that these indications that the three-party coalition in favour of HS2 is not quite as rock solid as it once appeared to be are unlikely to bring about the demise of the project, but the Prime Minister obviously felt the need to face down the project’s critics. So the order went out to get the incoming HS2 Ltd Chairman to look again at the budget. But the Prime Minister went further than this, giving his personal backing to Sir David’s ability to deliver on cost reductions in a speech that he made at the Confederation of British Industry Annual Conference held in November 2013. Mr Cameron promised that:
“One of the first things [Sir David is] going to do is make absolutely sure we drive every extra bit of cost out of this that we can so that it comes in under the budget that’s been set.”
So the stakes were fairly high when Sir David launched his report HS2 Plus in the Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester Town Hall on Monday 17th March. The choice of venue was, presumably, to demonstrate a commitment to the North, but it would appear to have been a time-limited commitment as Sir David was soon on a train back to London.
As he stood up to present his findings, I wonder whether Sir David gave any thought to the expectations of the man who just might be controlling the purse strings when work on HS2 is due to start. Ed Balls had made these expectations clear in remarks quoted in an article that had been published in The Guardian the previous weekend:
“I really hope he shows – certainly on the first phase of the project, the one where the legislation applies – he has got a proper grip on management and costs, that the costs have come down markedly.”
If Sir David did reflect on these words, then he would have been only too aware that he was about to disappoint Mr Balls, because when he did stand up he had the temerity to announce to his audience of journalists and HS2 sycophants that he was not proposing any reductions in the HS2 budget, not for Phase 1 nor for Phase 2.
As Sir David was talking I expect that the faint whiff of hot wax was pervading the assembly. The wings that had borne Sir David high aloft for so long were surely beginning to thermally degrade; perhaps the damage was not enough to plunge him to earth like Icarus, but for certain he was losing altitude.
So far I have been unable to find any record of Mr Balls’ view on what Sir David had to say.
Better sing through the next two weeks and hope the MPs get the courage to change direction: