Making more room at the trough

It seems obvious from statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in advance of the report HS2 Plus being published that the proposals  therein for the redevelopment of Euston station and its environs have been guided by the heavy hand of HM Treasury. The idea is simple: allow a property developer or two to plant trotters and snout firmly in the HS2 trough by granting access to prime development land around Euston station, backed up by virtually unlimited compulsory purchase powers (see footnote 1), and, in exchange, extract a generous contribution to the cost of building a new station for HS2.

It is clear, from his written statement to the House of Commons on the Higgins Review, that the Transport Secretary is, as you would expect, broadly in favour of the idea. Mr McLoughlin describes it as “a significant opportunity to maximise the economic potential of the line and regenerate a site that has been neglected”. He also, unsurprisingly, remarks that it is “a significant opportunity to generate private sector investment that can reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer”. He therefore announced that he would set this ball rolling by requesting “HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to develop more comprehensive proposals for the redevelopment of Euston, working with the rail industry and the local community”.

Whilst I can understand why the Transport Secretary would nominate HS2 Ltd and Network Rail for this task, I fear that he has doomed the project to failure before it starts. After all HS2 Ltd doesn’t exactly have a good track record of “working with … the local community” and always appears to aspire to mediocrity rather than excellence.

I am also concerned that Sir David Higgins has rather pre-empted due process by proposing in HS2 Plus that the new station should be a “level deck design”. It has always been clear that HS2 Ltd is not concerned about the impacts upon the local community that expanding the footprint of the station would have, and wants to avoid the added construction complexity of more intricate designs that fit within the existing footprint. However, surely this rethink of Euston station merits a proper review of all the options, including the multi-level and below ground designs that have been proposed to an unreceptive HS2 Ltd.

I am definitely not a fan of the design for Euston station in the current version of the Phase 1 hybrid Bill. In my blog An exercise in creative writing (posted 8 May 2013) I called it “a shoddy, make do and mend substitute for a badly needed rebuild at Euston”. In my blog On second thoughts … (posted 30 Apr 2013) I opined that any new Euston station should be the “landmark architectural statement that such a project demands”. The current Euston Station is, by fairly common consent, an eyesore that was largely the well-meaning creation of some talentless and faceless servants of British Rail. Little more than fifty years after being built it is, in Sir David Higgins’ words, “getting close to its sell by date – except nobody would want to buy it” (see footnote 2). I am fearful that any replacement will be the product of equally talentless and visionless architects, and will leave something equally hideous and short-term as a legacy to future generations. The conceptual drawings that have been released by HS2 Ltd for various buildings along the HS2 route do nothing to assuage my fears.

In HS2 Plus Sir David Higgins is keen to compare what he thinks could be achieved at Euston with the successful regeneration projects at St Pancras and King’s Cross. It is important to recognise that Euston is lacking an essential feature of the other two projects, which is an iconic Victorian building at the core. Though the frontages of King’s Cross and St Pancras are very different, the one functional and the other fancy, they are both generally recognised as icons of their type. What architectural and historical merit Euston station had was swept away in the 1960s. All that is being offered as a historical centre of gravity for the new station is a reconstructed Euston Arch. Whilst this structure was an important focus for the unsuccessful campaign by Sir John Betjeman and others against the destruction at Euston, my view is that it lacks relevance, and more importantly architectural merit, in the context of today’s London. In all truth it is a pretty ugly pile of stone, and is likely to look totally incongruous plonked in front of the hideous Paxtonesque creation that I fear might serve as the new Euston station.

It seems essential to me that the design of any replacement for Euston station should only be entrusted to a top architectural practice and should be a nonpareil with the reasonable expectation of, in the phrase used by Sir David in his report, “standing the test of time”. What is needed is a structure that will become recognised as a major London landmark. In times gone by, prestigious architectural commissions of this type were subject to a competition to select the best concept on offer. It was such a competition that resulted in Sir George Gilbert Scott being entrusted with the design of the station frontage and hotel at St. Pancras, and the success of that decision is, thankfully, there for all to see today, one hundred and fifty years later. Surely a project to build a new Euston station should be treated similarly.

Footnotes:

  1. Clause 47 of the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill as deposited in Parliament allows for compulsory purchase orders if the Government “considers that the construction or operation of phase one of High Speed 2 gives rise to the opportunity for regeneration or development of any land”.
  2. An opinion expressed by Sir David during his Manchester launch speech.

Carry your bags, sir?

How important to the concept of a UK high-speed north-south line are direct services from stations north of London to continental Europe, via a direct rail link between HS2 and HS1?

When prominent HS2 flag bearer Geoff Inskip, Chief Executive of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive or Centro as it is usually known, was asked by Karen Lumley MP during the Committee Stage of the HS2 paving bill, “Do you think it is crucial that HS2 and HS1 are linked together?” (see footnote 1), he replied “absolutely” and “totally”. He went on to explain:

“It is really important that we get direct services into Europe. At the moment, the link between HS1 and HS2 needs to be future-proofed as well, to make sure that we get double-tracking in there. It must not compete with other services along that particular path. I know that people will ask whether there is the demand to go into mainland Europe, but I think that once you provide the service, overnight it will be a massive success. Therefore we have an issue with providing it and providing it quickly.”

In his written statement to the House of Commons on the Higgins Review, the Transport Secretary stated that he “intended to take the necessary steps to remove the [HS1-HS2] link from the [Phase 1 hybrid] Bill and withdraw the safeguarding of this section of the route as soon as possible”. So it would appear that Phase 1 legislation will go ahead without any provision for interconnecting HS2 with HS1. In the same statement, however, Mr McLoughlin advises that he will “also commission a study into ways to improve connections to the continent that could be implemented once the initial stages of HS2 are complete”.

Where you may think that this is taking the future of direct services from HS2 stations north of London to continental Europe depends on your outlook on life. If you take the “glass half empty” approach, you will agree with the Daily Telegraph in an article published on the same day as Sir David Higgins launched his report, that:

“Plans for a direct high speed line between the North of England and Europe have been scrapped by the Government on the advice of the HS2 boss.”

According to the Daily Telegraph view of the future, “passengers heading from Manchester and Leeds to Brussels and Paris, would travel from London Euston to St Pancras on the London Underground or by foot”.

However, if you are HS2 cheerleader Sir Richard Leese CBE Kt, Leader of Manchester City Council (MCC), the glass is definitely half full and, according to his The Leader’s Blog posting on the MCC website the cancellation is an opportunity to seek an improvement in the offering:

“Just one other thing I’ll mention here. David Higgins has said that the current proposal to link HS2 with HS1 and through that to mainland Europe is inadequate and should be reviewed. That review and the suggested comprehensive private sector funded redevelopment of Euston Station are very much to be welcome”.

My view is that Sir Richard is being unduly optimistic. It appears to me that Sir David Higgins holds the view that it is perfectly acceptable for passengers to interchange between Euston and St Pancras stations. He told the Daily Telegraph that options to the cancelled link were “as simple as being able to get between the two stations either by tube or by walking, as you do in Paris, or a very expensive high speed connection from further outside London to the North”. In his HS2 Plus report he points out that “the HS2 platforms at Euston will be a short distance from those at HS1, and one stop on the Underground” or “the equivalent of transferring from one terminal to another at Heathrow”.

It is also obvious from HS2 Plus that Sir David is concerned about the train path congestion that would result if his brand new HS2 tracks were also required to accommodate through international services, something that I pointed out in my blog Good idea, but … (posted 13 Feb 2013). He admits that a HS1-HS2 through link would “use up HS2 capacity that could be better used on services to more areas, such as North Wales”. It is good to have his endorsement of my comments in this respect.

It would also appear that the Transport Secretary has been persuaded by Sir David’s remarks. During the questions that followed his statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March, Mark Reckless MP asked him whether he would “consider installing a travelator to get people quickly and easily between St Pancras and Euston” (see footnote 2). Mr McLoughlin replied:

“My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to have a good link between Euston and St Pancras. Sir David says in his report, and has said to me, that that can be done at a much more efficient rate than what is currently planned under the High Speed 1-High Speed 2 link, which will now be removed from the Bill.”

It is clear that Geoff Inskip’s Centro does not share the optimism exhibited by Sir Richard Leese. An article on The Transport Network website describes the Department for Transport and Centro as “at loggerheads” over the scrapping of the link and reports that Centro is “set to petition” the hybrid Bill and is “calling for the Government to commit to having a fully segregated tunnel linking HS1 to HS2 to enable direct services from Birmingham to Europe without having to change between Euston and St Pancras”, amongst a number of other issues that it has with the HS2 proposal (see footnote 3).

If all this wasn’t enough angst, a blog on the Stop HS2 website raises the intriguing prospect that the UK risks being found to be in breach of European Union Law if it fails to provide an “interoperable” rail link between HS1 and HS2.

Did I hear the resounding clang of yet another wheel falling off the HS2 train?

Footnotes:

  1. This exchange is identified as Q52 in the transcript of the proceedings of the Public Bill Committee deliberating on the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill for the morning of Tuesday 9th July 2013.
  2. Refer to column 38 of the House of Commons Official Report for Monday 24th March 2014.
  3. Refer to a paper written by the Chief Executive and tabled at the meeting of Centro’s Integrated Transport Authority (ITA) held on 31st March 2014 “to seek the ITA’s approval to deposit in Parliament a petition against the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill in accordance with the requirements of Section 239 the Local Government Act (LGA) 1972”.

PS: My attention has been drawn to the proposal on the King’s Cross Environment website for a maglev connection between Euston and St Pancras posted, of course, on 1st April. Perhaps this is a solution that is more in keeping with the general design philosophy behind HS2.

PPS: Some days after I had completed this blog a contribution on the same topic appeared on the International Railway Journal website written by no less a person than Lord Berkeley, the Chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Lord Berkeley does not appear to share Sir Richard Leese’s optimistic view of the prospects for a HS1-HS2 link, and moves the discussion on by claiming that the Government is seeking “to prevent the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee from discussing any future alternative link”. In his view, this will mean that “HS2 passengers wanting to go to Paris will still be trudging along Euston Road to St Pancras 50 years from now”.

Sub-optimal decision-making

In the Foreword to his report HS2 Plus Sir David Higgins describes the design of the HS1-HS2 link included in the proposals for Phase 1 of HS2 as “sub-optimal” and suggests that it “should be reconsidered”. I will happily accept both verdicts, but feel that they could so easily be applied to most aspects of the HS2 Phase 1 design; it is a great shame that Sir David is not proposing that the whole shooting match be reassessed.

However, it would appear that Sir David’s revolutionary zeal does not extend as far as unpicking Phase 1 and addressing the other sub-optimal aspects of the design. In a report of a seminar with Sir David that she attended, Andrea Leadsom, MP for South Northamptonshire, notes that:

“… when questioned about Phase 1 of the project, Sir David made clear that there were no plans to discuss substantial changes stating that it would cost ‘billions’ to make changes to the route.”

Ms Leadsom comments that, “Sir David is not open to re-evaluating whether the route is correct” and that “he has insufficient consideration for the environmental impact of HS2”.

In the HS2 – sooner and better section of his report, Sir David offers a little, but not much, explanation for his recommendation about the HS1-HS2 link. Whilst he defends it as the “most cost-effective solution”, he describes it as an “imperfect compromise because of the effect that it would have on existing passenger and freight services and the local community”. However, I think that the former assertion is open to challenge; possibly it might qualify as the cheapest solution, but its cost-effectiveness is hampered by the poor benefits and operational difficulties that it brings. That it is an “imperfect compromise” is an assessment with which few would disagree, I imagine.

In a way, Sir David’s suggestion comes as no surprise; the link was not a feature of the original proposal made to the Government by HS2 Ltd in December 2009, and it has been clear all along that HS2 Ltd does not favour providing such a link, in view of its poor business case and the difficulties of its construction. It would appear that it was only included in the February 2011 Command Paper at the insistence of the then Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP. In my blog The weakest link (posted 17 Feb 2013) I described it as “a cheap and nasty solution”.

It would appear that the current Transport Secretary has come around to the HS2 Ltd way of thinking. In his statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March (see footnote 1), the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP conceded that, “The HS1-HS2 link proposed in the hybrid Bill has not secured consensus”. He echoed Sir David’s view, condemning the proposal as one that “requires too many compromises in terms of its impact on freight, passengers and the community in Camden”. His remedy, setting aside the consequences, is simple:

“I therefore intend to remove the link from the hybrid Bill and withdraw safeguarding as soon as possible. I will also commission a study into options for ways to improve connections to the continent, which could be built once the initial stages of HS2 are complete.”

This decision is good news for the community of the London Borough of Camden. According to Simon Pitkeathley, Chief Executive of Camden Town Unlimited, an organisation representing local businesses, writing in a blog on the Huffington Post website, “Camden residents and businesses will breathe a sigh of relief that the Government has now been persuaded to drop the link in its current form, which was set to tear through the heart of Camden Town, causing a decade of disruption and destroying parts of our markets and creative economy”.

It is hardly surprising that Camden Town businesses are relieved at Mr McLoughlin’s decision. A report commissioned by Camden Town Unlimited from BOP Consulting estimates the gross value added (GVA) generated by “Camden’s creative economy” over the period 2014 to 2031 will be reduced by between £317m and £631m, due to the negative impacts of HS2. The same report puts the loss of jobs at between 5,350 and 9,100. The scrapping of the HS1 to HS2 link should appreciably reduce these impacts.

Another weakness of the HS1 to HS2 link was its reliance on using the North London Line trackway, something that was acknowledged both by Sir David, in his report, and Patrick McLoughlin, in his statement. There is nothing new about the realisation that this shared working would be problematic, it has just taken rather long for HS2 Ltd and the Government to recognise the extent of the problem. Transport for London has been clear about this for some time (see footnote 2):

“The North London Line is heavily used by both London Overground and freight services and introducing additional HS2 trains onto these tracks would adversely impact on Overground performance and limit the potential for future growth.”

So, on balance, I don’t think that too many tears will be shed in most quarters about the demise of the cheap and nasty link. However, the decision to scrap it without any alternative proposal to support direct international services being offered does take the shine off the HS2 proposition somewhat. It is perhaps an indication of the lack of diligence that our elected representatives are applying in evaluating HS2, that of the thirty-seven backbenchers who asked questions of the Transport Secretary when he came to the Commons on 24th March only three actually mentioned the scrapping of the link and, of these, only one, Stephen Pound (Labour MP for Ealing North) felt that the lack of connectivity between HS1 and HS2 would be “a problem for the future”.

I don’t think that we should make the same mistake in these blogs, and so propose to look at the impacts on the HS2 proposal of scrapping the link in my next posting.

Footnotes:

  1. The transcript of the Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March may be found in column 29 to column 31 of the House of Commons Official Report.
  2. Extracted from paragraph 3.7 of a report of 10th November 2011 presented to Transport for London’s Environment, Corporate Planning Panel.

Just tell us the basis of your calculation

As I reported in my blog Can you smell hot wax? (posted 1 Apr 2014) the incoming Chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins, was tasked with investigating “how to reduce the £42.6 billion cost of the [HS2] scheme”. His comments on this task, as set out in his report HS2 Plus, are not, I find, very clearly expounded; for a start it appears that you have to read the Forward and the section Timescale and cost together to get a handle on what he is saying. I consider that he made a much better fist of it in the speech that he gave at the Manchester launch and so will use that speech as the basis of this blog.

It would appear from what he said that Superman feels powerless at this time to deliver on the expectations of the Prime Minister and the Shadow Chancellor to make reductions in the budget for the HS2 project, and wishes to push the onus back on the politicians. As he told his Manchester audience:

“The simple truth at the heart of this, as any, project is that there is a direct connection between certainty, time and cost. The more certainty there is about the timescale, the more possible it is to control cost through economies of scale.”

All he was able to promise was that “the more clarity parliament can provide, the more I can reduce contingency, and, therefore, the ultimate cost”.

That’s as close to you get to an explanation of why Sir David has not been able to get to grips with the budget. He has failed to explain, at least to my satisfaction, how timescales relate to budget uncertainty, particularly bearing in mind that the budget is “inflation proofed” by being expressed in 2011 prices.

He was given the opportunity to be more expansive about his views in an interview with James Naughtie, broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on the morning of the launch.

James Naughtie: Just tell us the basis of your calculation that the more quickly we get on with it the cheaper it will be, or the lower the costs in the long run will be.

Sir David Higgins: Well time is uncertainty. Uncertainty leads into cost, and eventually money. Also getting the scope right at the start is crucially important, hence my recommendations on Crewe, Euston and the High Speed 1 link.

I have to say that I didn’t find that particularly helpful. Either Sir David is the world’s worst communicator, or he is just being plain cagey. He did however admit that he hadn’t done what the politicians had asked.

James Naughtie: Talking of money, Ed Balls the Shadow Chancellor, speaking for the Labour Party, said that he wanted the costs to come down markedly. Is that possible?

Sir David Higgins: Well you’ll see in my report that I set out in the first phase around £7.4bn worth of contingency. Now a reasonable portion of that should be saved, but it would be foolish to say that I’ve saved it now because I haven’t done anything. It’s about reducing risk. Making the right decisions on scope now will help us reduce risk, and that will bring savings.

So he is making no promises – Mr Balls please note.

There is one excuse that Sir David made in his speech that I have considerable sympathy with. He said regarding the budget for Phase 2 that it was “too early in its development to properly assess”. Since the route of Phase 2 has yet to be confirmed, at least “officially”, this is surely right. I therefore have no disagreement with the concentration of Sir David’s review on the budget for Phase 1. In this respect, he advises in his report that he and his team “have undertaken an exhaustive review of the costs outlined in the first phase of the project”. We learnt from his speech that this review had taken eight weeks and he showed a slide (no 15 in the presentation) that summarised the findings, broken down by topic. This showed some small increases in predicted base costs and some small reductions, with the revised overall infrastructure cost forecast of £15.650bn showing a very small increase of £6m.

In slide no 16 he states that the budget for Phase 1 infrastructure is £21.4bn. It is important to note that this is the P95 confidence level estimate, which means that HS2 Ltd feels that there is a 95% chance of delivering Phase 1 at, or below, that figure, expressed in 2011 Q2 prices. In my blog I’m not talking about Crossrail, part 1 (posted 14 Dec 2013) I reported that Parliament had been told by HS2 Ltd, in the Estimate of Expense for Phase 1 document that was deposited with the hybrid Bill, that the budget for Phase 1 was £19.39bn, which is the P50 figure.

In confirming the £21.4bn budget figure to the Manchester audience, Sir David explained:

“Of course the easy thing to do would have been to reduce the contingency budget, but, given the uncertainty, particularly over the parliamentary timetable, that would have been irresponsible to do so.”

But by using the P95 figure, far from proposing a reduction to the contingency, Sir David is actually claiming an increase of £2.01bn. But it is in fact worse than that, because Sir David is also trousering an addition to the contingency of £0.7bn for “potential scope saving (including risk reduction)”. He doesn’t appear to have explained this item, or even mentioned it, in his launch speech, but I take it to be the saving from cancelling the HS1-HS2 link. So, all in all, Sir David is refusing to release his grip on £6.45bn of contingency for Phase 1, representing a massive 41% of the estimated base cost.

Sir David’s political masters appear to be living on a different planet. Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, told the House of Lords just a few months ago (see footnote):

“As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, will know—he has read the strategic case—High Speed 2 now estimates that, without any contingency, it could bring in phase 1 at £15.6 billion. The Secretary of State has said that we need to have a little contingency, but he wants to see this come in at £17.16 billion or less. That is the pressure being put on Sir David Higgins, and he feels that it is pressure that he can accept.”

Sir David has studiously failed to acknowledge the Transport Secretary’s budget cap. It appears that his technique for coping with pressure is to ignore it.

So what you might ask is the budget for Phase 1 infrastructure; is it the Transport Secretary’s £17.16bn, or the hybrid Bill’s £19.39bn, or Sir David’s £21.4bn?

Footnote: The Minister made this statement during her speech responding to the Lords Second Reading debate on the HS2 paving bill on Tuesday 19th November 2013 (see column 948 in the House of Lords Official Report).

A man of few words

The most distinctive quality of Sir David Higgins’ HS2 Plus report is surely its brevity. The text sullies only seventeen sides of paper. The first three of these provide the Foreword, which also serves as an executive summary since there is otherwise none. The next seven pages, taken up by sections with the titles Context and HS2 – the catalyst for change, could best be described as yet another attempt at a justification for the HS2 project. I never cease to be amused by the convolutions and ingenuity that have been characteristic of the successive relaunches of this troubled venture – and this time the principal narrative is the implication that HS2 will encourage companies to relocate their head offices away from the capital and so contribute to the regeneration of the North (see footnote 1). However, I really don’t think that this section, which is expansive when compared to the brevity of the report as a whole, genuinely has a place in this document. As I understand it, Sir David’s remit – and nowhere in his report does he set out the terms of that remit – was to look at minimising costs and maximising benefits, not to investigate the raison d’être for the project.

I feel bound to comment in passing however on Sir David’s treatise on the need to improve Phase 2, particularly the desirability of improving its integration into the existing rail network in order to maximise the benefits to the North. I am sure that he is right to think this, but it left me wondering why the Midlands was not receiving similar consideration. Even on current plans, Phase 2 appears to be far more integrated into the existing rail network; Phase 1 is positively detached. So why does Sir David not want to improve Phase 1 to ensure that the Midlands receives maximum benefit from HS2? It could be that, hailing from Australia, Sir David is under the mistaken belief that the centre of our country is also nothing but bush and desert. Or might it be that he regards Phase 1 as too far down the line to be saved, and that it will serve best as a simple link between London and the integrated network that he is proposing north of Birmingham?

Once the Foreword, Context and HS2 – the catalyst for change sections are stripped out from HS2 Plus, a mere seven sides of paper remains for getting down to the brass tacks of the report. In less than two thousand words, Sir David makes six proposals:

  • To bring forward some work on Phase 2 to establish, by 2027, a new hub at Crewe, served by a high speed line link to London.
  • To bring forward the planned completion date for Phase 2 from 2033 to 2030.
  • To carry out a more comprehensive development of Euston Station and the surrounding area, similar to the regeneration of St Pancras and King’s Cross.
  • To scrap the HS1-HS2 link, as currently proposed.
  • To improve rail connectivity in the North in general, alongside the implementation of HS2 Phase 2.
  • To leave the budgets for Phase 1 and Phase 2 unchanged at this time.

As you might expect, seven sides of paper proves to be totally inadequate to allow Sir David to explain his proposals in any detail, or for him to offer anything other than the briefest justifications. In particular, the report is totally devoid of any costing estimates for the additional work associated with establishing the hub at Crewe and the more ambitions plans for Euston. Some additional information was provided by Sir David in support of his Manchester launch speech, in the form of a slide presentation. These slides included timeplans showing the critical role of the time required for the work at the London stations and how Phase 2 might be accelerated. The presentation also provided details of the figures arising from the cost review that has been carried out. It is frankly beyond me why this information has not been provided in the printed report.

I once had a geography teacher who marked homework out of ten. If you achieved 7/10 he would add the Latin word satis to indicate that your effort had been adequate. In all truth, I don’t think that my old geography teacher would have regarded Sir David’s efforts as worthy of a satis.

It would appear however that standards in Westminster are not as exacting as at my old school. In a clear demonstration of the talent that politicians have to totally disconnect from reality, the Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, described HS2 Plus as “substantial and thorough” (see footnote 2). Would you credit it? I defy anybody who is of sound and independent mind to read HS2 Plus and then agree with Ms Creagh’s description.

Of course, what this is all about is politics. I am sure that Mary Creagh is fully aware that Sir David has effectively cocked a snook at her fellow Wakefield (area) MP, Ed Balls; the HS2 Ltd Chairman is clearly not about to yield any of the contingency in the budget voluntarily, despite Labour’s threats.

So why has Labour rolled over and curled up on Sir David’s lap so obviously? One possible reason is that Sir David has deftly passed the responsibility for completing HS2 under budget back to the Government; his message is that delays and dithering by politicians will add to project costs. This chimes with the Opposition’s accusations that the Government has mismanaged the HS2 project.

Another possible reason has been advanced by Norman Smith, Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News, as quoted on the BBC News website:

“Sir David does appear to have brought Labour on board, by his idea of extending the line to Crewe by 2027.”

In my next posting I will look in more detail about what Sir David has said about the budget for HS2.

Footnotes:

  1. Beleben makes some interesting comparisons with the locations of head offices of companies based in France in one of his/her blogs.
  2. Ms Creagh made this comment in her response to the Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March (column 31 of the House of Commons Official Report). In a subsequent blog she expands her assessment to “substantial, thoughtful and thorough”.

 

Can you smell hot wax?

As Icarus would tell you – were it not for the considerable communication handicap of him being mythical and, at the very least, dead – flying too close to the sun can be a precarious occupation. When it comes to high flyers, nobody appears to soar into the stratosphere quite as far as Sir David Higgins, past Chief Executive of the London 2012 Summer Olympics Delivery Authority and newly-appointed Chairman of HS2 Ltd. He is the man who, single-handedly it appears, was responsible for delivering the 2012 Summer Olympics on time and on budget. This is an impressive claim, but has been perhaps overhyped, since the project should never had been started if there was the remotest possibility of it not being delivered on time, and the budget to which Sir David was working was considerably inflated from the one originally set for the project.

Notwithstanding, Sir David emerged from the events of the summer of 2012 as a superhero of galactic proportions, a status that has even survived his subsequent appointment as Chief Executive of Network Rail – possibly not a move that might be expected to be totally beneficial to anyone’s CV. He appears to be loved by politicians of all colours. The plaudit delivered by HS2’s biggest fan, Lord Adonis, speaking in the Lords Second Reading debate on the HS2 paving bill is typical:

“I also applaud the decision to appoint Sir David Higgins as chair of HS2. The biggest infrastructure project in Europe needs the best infrastructure manager available. Sir David Higgins, fresh from delivering the 2012 Olympics on time and on budget, is the very best.” (column 909)

In what could reasonably be seen as a reaction to criticism of the budget for HS2 made by Shadow Chancellor, the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP, in his speech to the Labour Party Conference last autumn, Sir David was given a brief to report to the Transport Secretary on, in the words of the Department for Transport press release, “how to reduce the £42.6 billion cost of the scheme”. That same press release promised that Sir David would publish the report of his findings “in March, before the second reading of the Hybrid Bill”.

To recap on that Labour Conference speech, the Shadow Chancellor said that the HS2 project “has been totally mismanaged and the costs have shot up to £50 billion”. He accused the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of wishing to “go full steam ahead” with HS2 “no matter how much the costs spiral up and up”. In contrast, he claimed, “Labour will not take this irresponsible approach” and that he, should he become Chancellor, he will not write a “blank cheque … for this project or for any project”.

According to Mr Balls, the question that should be asked about HS2 is “not just whether a new High Speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country”.

Whilst there has been some evidence since the Labour Party Conference that the Shadow Chancellor has had not a little difficulty in making his views prevail within a Labour Party that does not wish to upset its representatives from the three big cities north of London that HS2 would serve, he persists in muttering about the costs of the project and appears to have retained his scepticism. This leaves Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, having to reaffirm Labour’s support for the HS2 project at every opportunity.

I fear that these indications that the three-party coalition in favour of HS2 is not quite as rock solid as it once appeared to be are unlikely to bring about the demise of the project, but the Prime Minister obviously felt the need to face down the project’s critics. So the order went out to get the incoming HS2 Ltd Chairman to look again at the budget. But the Prime Minister went further than this, giving his personal backing to Sir David’s ability to deliver on cost reductions in a speech that he made at the Confederation of British Industry Annual Conference held in November 2013. Mr Cameron promised that:

“One of the first things [Sir David is] going to do is make absolutely sure we drive every extra bit of cost out of this that we can so that it comes in under the budget that’s been set.”

So the stakes were fairly high when Sir David launched his report HS2 Plus in the Neo-Gothic splendour of Manchester Town Hall on Monday 17th March. The choice of venue was, presumably, to demonstrate a commitment to the North, but it would appear to have been a time-limited commitment as Sir David was soon on a train back to London.

As he stood up to present his findings, I wonder whether Sir David gave any thought to the expectations of the man who just might be controlling the purse strings when work on HS2 is due to start. Ed Balls had made these expectations clear in remarks quoted in an article that had been published in The Guardian the previous weekend:

“I really hope he shows – certainly on the first phase of the project, the one where the legislation applies – he has got a proper grip on management and costs, that the costs have come down markedly.”

If Sir David did reflect on these words, then he would have been only too aware that he was about to disappoint Mr Balls, because when he did stand up he had the temerity to announce to his audience of journalists and HS2 sycophants that he was not proposing any reductions in the HS2 budget, not for Phase 1 nor for Phase 2.

As Sir David was talking I expect that the faint whiff of hot wax was pervading the assembly. The wings that had borne Sir David high aloft for so long were surely beginning to thermally degrade; perhaps the damage was not enough to plunge him to earth like Icarus, but for certain he was losing altitude.

So far I have been unable to find any record of Mr Balls’ view on what Sir David had to say.

I intend to look in more detail at Sir David’s report in my next few postings.

Time to build your ark

In my blog Fair shares for all? (posted 16 Mar 2014) I reported how HS2 had been dragged into the argument about flood prevention funding for the Somerset Levels and in I wish I could have got here earlier (posted 24 Mar 2014) I commented that comparisons were being made between funding for transport infrastructure in the South West of England and the HS2 project. But it doesn’t stop there, because the recent inclement weather has also prompted questions about whether building HS2 will increase the risk of flooding for communities along its route.

Never slow to take up the cudgels against HS2, the Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, was smartly out of the blocks by tabling a written Commons question that was answered by Dan Rogerson MP, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on 13th January. Mrs Gillan asked:

“… what places in the High Speed 2 safeguarded area or within half a mile of that safeguarded area (a) have been flooded in the past two months and (b) are considered to be at risk from flooding.”

It appeared that the Minister did not have very much information to offer Mrs Gillan by way of an answer. He told her that “it does not appear that the safeguarded area for HS2 has been significantly flooded during the last two months” but that “there could be some flooding arising from local sources that has not yet been recorded”. He promised that the information “will be captured and collated once the current emergency response has concluded”. He said nothing about instances of flooding of locations outside the safeguarded area but “within half a mile”.

In response to the part of Mrs Gillan’s question relating to the risk of flooding, Mr Rogerson made a surprising admission:

“The safeguarded area for phase one of HS2 crosses just over 100 watercourses, each of which will have a degree of flood risk associated with them. The scale of that risk will depend on the precise alignment of the route. At present this has not been fully assessed, nor has an assessment been made for the phase two routes.”

Now that no assessment has been made for Phase 2 I can understand, since the final route has not been confirmed, but for Phase 1 we have an Environmental Statement (ES), the outcome of goodness knows how many £millions spent on environmental impact assessment (EIA), shouldn’t that provide the flood risk assessment that Mrs Gillan is seeking?

She obviously thinks that it should. In an article in the Bucks Free Press published towards the end of February she is quoted as saying:

“This is totally unsatisfactory. You would have thought that was a basic part of any environmental investigation”.

You certainly would, and HS2 Ltd appears to think, despite what the Minister said, that flood risk has been covered in the EIA. A “statement on flood risk to HS2”, that HS2 Ltd appears to have issued in response to the Bucks Free Press coverage and a similar article in The Guardian, says:

“The HS2 Phase One route between London and the West Midlands has been designed to withstand even extreme flooding, taking climate change into account. HS2 Ltd worked closely with the Environment Agency when we published the Environmental Statement. This contains detailed flood risk assessments along Phase One. HS2 has been specifically designed to mitigate against flood risk both to the railway and to third parties along the route.”

The HS2 Ltd statement provides a link to an index page for the seventy-three volumes covering the topic of “water resources” in Volume 5 of the London-West Midlands Environmental Statement. One of those volumes is a “route-wide” assessment (WR-001-000) and the remainder comprise a “water resources assessment report” (WR-002-0xy) and a flood risk assessment report” (WR-003-0xy) for each of the twenty-six community forum areas, plus an assortment of water course modelling reports and technical reports.

I suggest that attempting an evaluation of just how rigorous the assessment of the flood risk from HS2 has been in the ES requires the expertise and patience to scrutinise closely at least the hundred pages or so of text in Appendix WR-001-000 and the appended tabulations of data that occupy a similar number of pages, and perhaps even the seventy odd other volumes that relate to specific locations. I’m afraid that, in this instance, I lack both of these qualities.

It is interesting though that, despite all of this work, the Minister from Defra felt the need to report that the analysis of flood risk had not been completed by HS2 Ltd. It would be helpful to learn in what respects the work is incomplete, what plans are in place to complete the task, and what the timescales are for completion.

I have to say that my own local knowledge leads me to be sceptical about the quality of the flood risk analysis that is reported in the ES. In July 2007 in excess of forty homes in my own village of Cubbington were flooded due to a local brook being unable to cope with surface water run-off from the very fields through which HS2 will run. A new flood alleviation scheme is currently under construction, and this work is referred to in paragraph 2.1.21 of ES Volume 2 Report CFA17. It is obviously important to the local community, and particularly those residents who were flooded in 2007, that the construction of HS2 does nothing to reduce the effectiveness of this new flood alleviation scheme that residents fought hard to get.

With this background, it was disturbing to read in the same Report CFA17 (in paragraph 13.3.42) that:

“The Environment Agency Mapping, Warwick SFRA and the Warwickshire PFRA indicate that there have been no historical incidents of surface water flooding within the study area.”

The lack of trust in HS2 Ltd that appears to permeate all of its dealings with local communities is very evident when it comes to flood risk. Following an incidence of flooding on an estate in his constituency, this is a matter that the Minister for Europe, the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, has felt the need to bring to the attention of the Transport Secretary in a recent letter:

“You will not be surprised therefore to hear that residents on the estate are very fearful that the construction and operation of HS2 across the floodplain close to their homes will add significantly to the flood risk on the estate. It is indisputable that both construction and operation will require farmland to be taken which for now soaks up surface water and which ought to act as natural flood protection for my constituents.”

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