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Thu, 22 October 2020

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HS2 is ‘badly off course’ and its bosses have been ‘blindsided by reality’, MPs warn

HS2 is ‘badly off course’ and its bosses have been ‘blindsided by reality’, MPs warn

The report is highly critical of the handling of the HS2 scheme (PA)

3 min read

The controversial HS2 rail project is “badly off course” after its bosses were "blindsided by contact with reality”, according to a scathing report by MPs.

The Public Accounts Committee has accused the Department for Transport (DfT) of a lack of transparency which it says has "undermined public confidence in the programme”.

And they claim its top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Bernadette Kelly, misled them about whether the project could be delivered on time when she appeared in front of them last year.

The report by the cross-party group says: "The Department and HS2 Ltd were aware of the scale of the issues facing the programme as early as October 2018.

"In March 2019, HS2 Ltd formally notified the Department that it could not deliver Phase One to budget and schedule.

"Despite being aware of these issues, the Permanent Secretary withheld from us that the programme was in significant difficulty when she appeared before the previous Committee in October 2018 and May 2019, even in response to specific questions about the programme's delivery timeline and budget.

"HS2 Ltd's annual report and accounts for the year ending March 31 2019 similarly failed to give an accurate account of the programme's problems.”

It adds: "While we recognise that ministers had not yet decided how to proceed, no adequate excuse was provided for not disclosing to this Committee and Parliament the risk and uncertainty the programme was facing.

"We are disappointed by the Permanent Secretary's response to our concerns about her failure to explicitly inform the Committee of the programme's delays and overspend when asked about the general health of the project."

Public Accounts Committee chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said: "There is no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from Parliament and the taxpayer.

"The Department and HS2 appear to have been blindsided by contact with reality - when Phase One started moving through Parliament, the predicted costs of necessary commitments to the communities affected have exploded from £245 million to £1.2 billion.

"The Government unfortunately has a wealth of mistakes on major transport infrastructure to learn from, but it does not give confidence that it is finally going to take those lessons when this is its approach."

Responding to the report, a DfT spokesperson said: "The current Secretary of State has been clear that this project must go forward with a new approach to Parliamentary reporting, with clear transparency, strengthened accountability to ministers, and tight control of costs.

"We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner."

They added: "The Permanent Secretary acknowledged in May 2019 that there were cost pressures that the Department and HS2 Ltd were working to address in line with government policy at the time. 

“Those discussions were active and commercially confidential."

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