Sunday 17 May 2020 12:50 pm

HS2: MPs say controversial rail project 'badly off course'

MPs have slammed the controversial HS2 rail project, saying that the scheme is “badly off course” and calling for far greater transparency from its executives.

In a new report, the Public Accounts Committee criticised the body for failing to provide an accurate picture of the project’s health when providing evidence to the committee.

Read more: HS2: Top civil servant admits to withholding information on cost blow out

It also said it was concerned by the “huge uncertainty” surrounding the design and delivery of Euston station, the rail link’s terminus.

In March, Whitehall’s top transport civil servant admitted to withholding information that showed HS2 would go over budget.

Bernadette Kelly, the permanent secretary of the Department for Transport, said that she had been “careful” in her remarks about the project’s budget at previous meetings.

Today’s PAC report finds that even though both HS2 Limited and the department were aware of the project’s cost and schedule overruns as early as October 2018, Kelly had failed to make this clear to the committee at two previous appearances.

In both October 2018 and March 2019, the report says, Kelly did not make the problems clear, even when asked specific questions on the issues.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said that there was “no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from Parliament and the taxpayer”.

She added: “The Committee is concerned about how open the Department and HS2 Ltd executives have been in their account of this project. 

“It is massively over budget and delayed before work has even begun”. 

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In evidence hearings, DfT and HS2 said they had not disclosed the issues because of commercial sensitivities and ongoing efforts to remedy the situation. 

Deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clinton-Brown described Kelly’s failures to inform the committee as a “serious breach” of the department’s duty which had undermined public confidence in the project. 

In its recommendations, the PAC said the department should set out in writing how it will keep Parliament informed of the project’s progress in its six-monthly reports.

At Euston, where HS2 will link with existing mainline rail services, the underground, and Crossrail, plans for the station design are currently being revised.

The committee said that it need “clarity” over the development, saying that it is a “risky element” in the whole project due to its urban environment and position on an active railway.

A spokesperson for the DfT said there had been a “comprehensive reset” of the programme, with a revised budget and funding regime:

They added that “significant reforms” would “ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner”:

“This includes appointing the first dedicated HS2 Minister, bi-annual updates to Parliament and establishing a monthly Ministerial Task Force, chaired by the Secretary of State, to ensure the project has a rigorous scrutiny like the 2012 Olympics.”

Read more: HS2: Transport department defends top civil servant over transparency row

In February, HS2 was given the green light by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite a review finding that the cost could balloon to over £100bn.

The decision was supposed to be taken before December’s general election, but had been pushed back for fear of upsetting voters.