Tuesday 12 November 2019 2:04 pm

Deputy chair of leaked HS2 review slams 'whitewash' report

The deputy chair of the government-commissioned review into HS2 has savaged a late draft of the report, which urges ministers to press on with the project.

Lord Tony Berkeley, who was co-author of the report until a matter of weeks ago, has written to chairman Douglas Oakervee demanding his name be removed from the document.

Read more: Why Boris Johnson is wary of putting HS2 on the scrap heap

Berkeley, a longstanding critic of the controversial project, told City A.M. Oakervee’s review was a “whitewash” and “a very good marketing document for HS2”.

In his letter, seen by City A.M., he wrote that he had been shut out of the review process in recent months.

“As Deputy Chair I would have expected to be able to attend the meetings that you had with ministers, officials and HS2 from non-execs downward, but I was not invited.”

“There was also a marked reluctance from officials and/or you [Oakervee] to delve more deeply into the costs of the project, with long delays in arranging meetings with HS2, something I asked for in my first week on the Review.”

He added that officials “prevented a proper comparison” between official cost estimates and those of an independent expert, Michael Byng.

The review, which was leaked to the Times, has recommended HS2 should go ahead in its entirety despite the likelihood of massive budget overruns and dwindling benefit to the taxpayer.

Oakervee is a former chairman of HS2 Limited, the company set up to run the project.

Berkeley, who saw the review on Thursday, added that plans to reduce the speed of the trains from 250mph to 210mph had been removed over the weekend, with Oakervee still “fiddling with it”.

In his letter, written to Oakervee yesterday, Berkeley wrote of the report: “I cannot support its conclusions or recommendations, and have serious problems with its lack of balance.”

“The lack of balance is reflected in the often unquestioning acceptance of information provided by HS2 Limited and a failure to scrutinise the involvement of HM Treasury and the Department for Transport in the development of the project.”

Panel members were shown a copy of the draft review on Thursday, shortly after the pre-election purdah period, preventing politically sensitive releases from the civil service, came into place.

Read more: Andrea Leadsom thinks HS2 is now ‘out of control’

Oakervee’s report recommends pushing on with the project, despite finding that spiralling costs caused by poor procurement meant that the benefit of HS2 to taxpayers has fallen from £2.30 for every £1 spent in 2017 to between £1.30 and £1.50 for every £1 spent this year.

This is compounded by the finding that HS2 could benefit cities in the north and midlands more than London, because of improved conditions on intercity lines.

The 10-person panel advising the review had suggested cutting the eastern arm of the line’s second phase, running between Birmingham and Leeds, as well as ending the line at Old Oak Common in west London instead of Euston station.

Instead, Oakervee has put forward plans to cut the number of trains per hour from 18 to 14.

The report concedes that HS2 is “not affordable” within the £56bn budget set for the project in 2015, and that a new £88bn estimate will most likely be hiked again.

Nevertheless, business groups came out in support of the project this morning.

CBI chief UK policy director Matthew Fell told City A.M.: “The unequivocal message from CBI is back it, build it, benefit from it.

“HS2 is more than just a railway line, it’s a key that unlocks future jobs, training and regeneration opportunities that will benefit us all.”

Read more: HS2 faces seven-year delay as costs set to balloon to £88bn

Meanwhile, British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said: “Businesses will be encouraged by reports that Oakervee will recommend that the government proceeds with all phases of HS2.

“We will continue to remind all political parties that HS2 will revolutionise connectivity between and within our cities and towns.”

City A.M. has approached the Department for Transport for comment.

Douglas Oakervee said: “I regret that Lord Berkeley feels unable to give his support. He participated fully in panel discussions that have seen all other members converge their views, based on the extensive evidence considered.

“I should nevertheless like to thank Lord Berkeley for his time and valued contribution to a number of sections of the draft report.”