In my blog Let’s be courageous, part 3 (posted 20 Aug 2016) I reported that the Director General High Speed Rail Group at the Department for Transport (DfT), David Prout, had confirmed to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in July last year that the DfT had “invited [HS2 Ltd] to make proposals and to offer us advice on whether or not we should extend the programme [for HS2 Phase 1] by up to 12 months”. He added that the advice had not been received at that time (see footnote 1).
At the same evidence session, the then Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, Simon Kirby, told the Committee that the work on this programme review was “well under way” and the Company would be “producing a report to the DFT in the autumn [of 2016]”, which he clarified as “September or October”. He stressed that this report “will be advice to the Department” and that “it will ultimately be a matter for Ministers to take decisions on what the timetable is” (see footnote 2).
The Chair of the PAC, Meg Hillier MP, wanted to know if the report to the DfT will be “available publicly” and if the “figures and that information [will] be made available to the public, so we can see the assumptions it is built on”. The reply from the DfT’s Permanent Secretary, Philip Rutnam, to this question is one that Sir Humphrey Appleby might have uttered (see footnote 3):
“We will need to see what the report is first”.
I think that we can assume that, even working to normal HS2 promise slippages, the DfT will have seen the report by now, and the decision appears to have been taken not to trouble the public with whatever it might say, as I can find no trace of it in the public domain.
In the report on its inquiry on HS2 progress the PAC recommends that “at the same time” that it was to announce the route for Phase 2b, the Government “should confirm whether it intends to open phase 1 in 2026 or 2027” (see footnote 4). For once, the Government appears to have heeded a select committee recommendation concerning HS2, because the command paper announcing (the majority of) the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b (Cm9355) contains the single sentence (see footnote 5):
“The first part of HS2, from London to Birmingham, is on track to open in 2026 as planned.”
This assurance comes as something of a surprise. The mood music for the witness session last July was certainly downbeat, and there was the scent of timescale problems in the air. In its report the PAC repeats the DfT’s view that the confidence level that Phase 1 would be delivered on time, estimated by HS2 Ltd to be sixty per cent, was “too low” (see footnote 6). The PAC’s verdict is that its Members “are not convinced that the timetable for delivering High Speed 2 is realistic” (see footnote 4).
There are two obvious scenarios that could lead to the DfT confirming that Phase 1 is “on track”. The first is that this was the conclusion of the report submitted to the Department by HS2 Ltd. The second is that the HS2 Ltd report was one that confessed to delays and requested that the project completion date be extended, but that the Secretary of State had rejected any talk of delays as being unacceptable and has refused to grant any extension to the Phase 1 in-service date. Without access to the HS2 Ltd report we are not in a position to judge which scenario is the true one – perhaps one of those enterprising FoI seekers amongst us might take up this challenge on our behalf, as I feel we have a right to know what advice on Phase 1 timescales ministers have been given.
Going back to that PAC oral evidence session in July last year, it does appear that the time is fast approaching for another Phase 1 state of health check. Mr Prout advised the PAC that a “further baselining of cost and schedule” will be “available next Easter” (see footnote 3), so we must look forward to becoming wiser in just a few weeks. It may be that, now that the Government has Royal Assent for Phase 1 firmly tucked under its belt, the Secretary of State will be more relaxed about revealing any bad news on Phase 1 timescales that may sitting on his desk.
- See the final paragraph under Q55 in the transcript Oral evidence: High Speed 2, HC 486, Commons Public Accounts Committee, 11thJuly 2016.
- See Q58 to Q60 in the Commons Public Accounts Committee transcript for 11thJuly 2016.
- See Q61 in the Commons Public Accounts Committee transcript for 11thJuly 2016.
- See paragraph 1 in Conclusions and recommendations on page 5 of the report Progress with preparations for High Speed 2, House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts Fourteenth Report of Session 2016-17, September 2016.
- See paragraph 2.1 in the publication High Speed Two: From Crewe to Manchester, the West Midlands to Leeds and beyond, Department for Transport, Cm9355, November 2016.
- See paragraph 1 on page 7 of Progress with preparations for High Speed 2.
PS: I was amused to see recently one of those captions that BBC News see fit to display during its coverage – presumably to serve the needs of the inattentive, rather than the deaf – a reference to a bill gaining “Royal Ascent”. I am ashamed to say that it conjured up pictures in my mind of Her Majesty perched on a cloud in the manner of a Renaissance painting of the Assumption.