A scintilla of doubt

In my blog Unfinished business, part 2 (posted 26 May 2015) I expressed the opinion that the HS2 Select Committee “should appoint its own expert advisers in the main disciplines for which it is called upon to rule” rather than rely too heavily on the submissions made by HS2 Ltd in exhibits and the testimony of its witnesses. I was pleased to see recently that a petitioner expressed similar sentiments in the evidence that he presented during his hearing in front of the Committee, and was encouraged that the petitioner, being a fellow Member of Parliament, was perhaps someone who the Committee might feel inclined to take notice of.

The petitioner to whom I refer is Nick Hurd, MP for Ruislip-Northwood, and he raised the question of the reliability of HS2 Ltd’s evidence in the context of his constituents’ request for the Northolt tunnel to be extended under West Ruislip, Ickenham, South Harefield and the main body of the Colne Valley (see footnote). In particular, a couple of weeks previously the Select Committee had heard several hours of testimony from expert witnesses put up by Hillingdon London Borough Council in support of two reports by consultants that the council has commissioned. The first of these reports, written by Peter Brett Associates, is an engineering feasibility and outline costing study of the tunnelling proposal, and the second, prepared by Regeneris, examines the true cost of the negative impacts that the surface route proposal would have on the borough.

The Select Committee sessions in which the Council case was heard turned out to be a classic example of the problem that I identify in Unfinished business, part 2 of the non-expert Members of the Committee being presented with “conflicting testimony from the experts put up by either party”. HS2 Ltd put up its own report on the tunnel proposal in which technical, constructional, risk, operational and maintenance issues are identified, as well as a “substantial cost difference”.

In his evidence, Mr Hurd indicated that he thought that the HS2 Ltd engineers may have been operating under the instruction to “dump as much manure as you can on Hillingdon Council’s proposal”. He said that unless “orders were changed” and HS2 Ltd engineers were told instead “Actually, we want you to look at this seriously”, then “none of us have good enough information on which to base a judgment about the value for money of a tunnel extension” (paragraph 22).

He made a direct appeal to his fellow MPs on the Committee (paragraph 35):

“… please make sure that you have a proper basis of comparing the costs and benefits of the different alternatives presented to you. I put it to you – some of you have been Ministers – I don’t think any Minister would ever, or should ever, take a decision based on the quality of information that you’ve been presented with.”

A point that he underlined in response to a question from Committee Member Henry Bellingham MP (paragraph 42);

“… I don’t think the Committee has been presented with good enough evidence about the relative costs of the options before you in order to form a reasonable and final judgment.”

And it was Mr Bellingham who was the first to acknowledge the sense in what Mr Hurd was saying. He described his proposition as “a powerful point” (paragraph 43) and agreed that, “It would be good to have some proper facts before us” (paragraph 45).

Ian Mearns MP agreed with his fellow Member (paragraph 56):

“I suppose one question would be: if we’re to have a proper cross-examination of the evidence from HS2, the promoter, as to the costs, how are we going to facilitate that? That needs to be conducted by a third-party body.”

And (paragraph 59):

“I think the problem is we do need technical expertise to properly cross-examine that evidence from HS2. That’s the problem I think that we have.”

Further support for independent technical analysis being sought by the Committee came from no less a person than Boris Johnson MP, who was serving as Mr Hurd’s witness (paragraph 57):

“I think that’s a very good idea. It might well be possible to find an independent consultant or expert who could give an evaluation of those costs.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the proceedings in Committee Room 5 that it was Sir Peter Bottomley MP who poured cold water on this new-found enthusiasm for independent technical advice, apparently acting in his usual capacity of ensuring that progress on clearing petitions is not hampered wherever possible (paragraph 61).

“I think any kind of major re-examination by other people is going to take far too long and will leave too many things, in my view, undetermined. What I think might be a practical thought – and I don’t want an instant answer from HS2 or the Government on this – is whether someone could get together the Peter Brett people, the Hillingdon people and the HS2 people and see how much is actually agreed and disagreed as a pretty rough job and where the areas of uncertainty are, and where people are willing to accept there’s a range of options.”

Tim Mould QC was apparently keen to seize on the opportunity that Sir Peter’s comment offered to avoid having his client’s homework checked (paragraph 66):

“Sir Peter’s point, if I may say so, is very well made, with respect; we cannot allow this to drag on. This Committee will want to make a decision, and so, if we are to have further conversations, they need to take place quickly.”

Significantly, the Chairman, Robert Syms MP, made no comment on the proposal to seek independent expert advice, and I fear that the brief opportunity that had arisen to equip the HS2 Select Committee with the information needed to do other than a purely perfunctory job may have evaporated into the Westminster air.

Footnote: Mr Hurd’s session in front of the HS2 Select Committee took place on the morning of Wednesday 1st July 2015 and starts at 9:34 in the video. The paragraph numbers given in parenthesis above refer to the transcript of the session.

PS: Since I penned this blog a statement by the Chairman of the Select Committee has confirmed that my pessimistic conclusion was justified. The statement advises that the Select Committee “do not direct further studies” of the costs of the Hillingdon tunnel alternative.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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