Wednesday 4 March 2020 6:06 pm

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

Whitehall’s top transport civil servant appeared to admit to withholding information that showed HS2 would go over budget in a parliamentary committee hearing today.

The Department for Transport’s (DfT) permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly answered questions from the Public Accounts Committee on the controversial project.

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The high speed rail line – connecting London, Birmingham, Crewe, Manchester and Leeds – is now likely to cost more than £100bn – double its original budget. 

A recent National Audit Office report found the DfT were told by HS2 Ltd. in March 2019 that the project was under significant cost pressures, and would likely go over its £55.7bn budget. 

Kelly was confronted by Conservative MP Huw Merriman today on why she did not tell the Public Affairs Committee about this knowledge, despite being asked about project costs in May 2019.

“I was quite careful in my remarks in 2019,” she said.

“I did not say it was coming in on budget and schedule, what I said is that the budget remained at £55.7bn, which it did.”

The mandarin’s comments sparked anger from Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

“You had serious knowledge that this project was off track and you didn’t inform the committee,” he said.

“Did it not occur to you to write to the committee afterward?”

Kelly defended her stance by claiming the department was still trying to find ways to resist surging costs, and that divulging this information to the public could put contracts at risk.

“There was no requirement to tell the committee about these internal escalation mechanisms,” she said.

The meeting comes as the Resolution Foundation today released a report claiming that the government needed a “delivery revolution” on major projects.

The report said the government would lose £10bn on infrastructure projects if it did not improve transparency and accountability on projects involving public money.

Resolution Foundation researcher Cara Pacitti said: “We need a corresponding delivery revolution, with policy makers demonstrating projects’ economic benefits and value-for-money before they are approved, creating more independent oversight of these projects, and ensuring that more projects are designed by – and delivered for – people outside the capital.”

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Boris Johnson confirmed HS2 would go ahead last month, after much debate over whether the project was still viable.

The decision sparked discontent among some quarters of the Tory party, with rumblings that the project no longer had the support of some backbenchers due to ballooning cost projections.