Treasury official refuses to give MPs his opinion of HS2 Ltd’s competence

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.

3 comments to “Treasury official refuses to give MPs his opinion of HS2 Ltd’s competence”
  1. Are our leaders listening no one wants there train hs2 can’t they pick up that all the men who have tried to push this project along have failed .Now we hear some lord is going to try good luck to him it is simply the wrong project for our county to expensive and to costly for our countryside and home owners .It will cost our PMs job if he keeps harpen on about hs2 just get rid of this idea and move on .

  2. Mr Cameron, Osborne, Adonis, Clegg, Hammond, Burns, McCloughlin and Ms Greening did lose the attempts to persuade thousands of people along the HS2 Corridor that spending billions on a construction project taking away rural countrysides was not accepted. They certainly have not got this message but the persuasion however passionate did not arise in the local communities and groups.

    There is the October Supreme Court case to argue and better arguments are required to extend Lord Justice Sullivan’s good legal analysis which was more objectively and clearly expressed than the parties in the case.

    SEA and EIA are not sufficient methods for a project which would divert tens of billions from other more pressing needs.

    Labour opened some doors and closed others. The Coalition was to shut doors it has not managed and cannot open others such as the emerging electrical power station requirements. Listening and watching Lord Adonis on BOOKTALK about his book the 5 days in May provided an incite into his thoughts about the theory of politics and the use of perception coupled with thin analysis of specifics.

    Unfortunate for the many on the corridor so much time and money spent on this diversion of a national strategy to solve the many daily problems for the UK population for a quite narrow requirement. What is in the politicians mind is not in the peoples. The fe did not fool the many on HS2 and they do not know how to let go. The Supreme Court presentation needs the arguments beyond Lord Sullivan’s analysis to demonstrate the people and Parliamentarians are not on the same agendas currently. The UK does need some additional facilities and infrastructure but the HS2 is not the top priority for a nation who roads are cluttered each day and cannot cope with the next decade of car owners road users as the Dartford Crossing incident showed and as most days occur to a smaller extent on the key motorways. Ideas on arguments as to alternatives are required to win the Supreme Court case and processes not to push aside planning processes prematurely but to apply scrutiny and get national value for money.

  3. Some people may not have seen it, because it is behind an online paywall, but today’s Financial Times article entitled “London needs High Speed Two as much as the north” is not written by the FT ( who remain of the view that it is a “white elephant” ) but instead written by the intellectual titan that is Nick Clegg. He is the latest government minister being wheeled out to try to steady the ship at HMS High Speed Two.

    Remember Calamity Clegg has made 3 of the most telling pieces of political misjudgement in recent years ( ranking alongside Cameron thinking that he could cajole the House into supporting Syrian intervention without at least going through the motion of waiting for the weapons inspectors’ report ) :

    1 ) He was absolutely adamant that we should adopt the Euro ,

    2 ) He went back on his word to allow the conservatives to treble tuition fees ( the impact this will have on the educational system is only just now starting to become apparent ) ,

    3 ) Then he made it worse by apologising not for voting with the government but for ” not making his original position clear”.

    So if Nick Clegg epitomises the government fight back then I really do believe HS2 opponents are on a roll.

    In the article he suggests that the North – South divide ” in a nutshell, is the case for the High Speed Rail link …. “. He then adds that ” London’s status as an economic global powerhouse will be put at risk without the link …. ” !!!

    There is very little evidence that the North – South divide would be reduced by HS2, possibly the opposite if high paid professional jobs locate to London. The second point is firmly rebuted by Kit Malthouse the chairman of London’s promotional body ( London & Partners ) who would rather spend money on connecting London with the world through a new airport than improving the link with Birmingham.

    I read through Clegg’s article thoroughly and cannot find the word “capacity” even once. All of this bluster just undermines the argument that this is about capacity, and that no other cheaper and / or less damaging options are acceptable.

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