Lashings of gravy

The Member of Parliament for Eddisbury in Cheshire, Antoinette Sandbach, is probably best known for her very moving speech in a House of Commons debate a year or so ago, when she talked about the loss of her five-day-old son to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (see footnote 1). Her Eddisbury constituency is on the route of HS2 Phase 2b between Crewe and Manchester, and so it is not surprising that the Conservative MP, a former criminal barrister, has also been known to table questions for the Secretary of State for Transport about the HS2 project.

One recent written question of hers asked the Transport Secretary to list all the companies that have been awarded contracts with HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) in each year since 2010 (see footnote 2). As is often the case with such questions, she only got a partial answer: no data were provided for the DfT, as this was deemed only obtainable at “disproportionate cost”; and, the information for HS2 Ltd was not listed year by year, but as a single list of companies contracted since 2010. Nevertheless, the list published with the Transport Secretary’s answer, referred to as “Annex A”, is an interesting one.

There are more than four hundred entries in the list, although there is some duplication due to some companies being listed as sole beneficiaries of contracts and also as members of consortia, and subsidiaries being listed separately. Only the company names are listed, so we can’t tell what contribution each has made to the project or the financial consideration paid, or due to be paid, for that contribution.

Nevertheless, it appears that at least one person has gone through that list with a fine-tooth comb, and that person is probably a researcher for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), because that party’s Transport spokesman, Jill Seymour, has recently blogged that the list contains “an astonishing seventeen different PR agencies” (see footnote 3). In her blog, Ms Seymour asks why HS2 Ltd is engaging in a “disgusting waste of our hard-earned money on a project which is neither wanted, nor needed”.

I have tried to find the answer to that question for Ms Seymour, or more accurately I have tried to find out what contribution to the project each of the seventeen has been required to make in return for its turn with the gravy boat, but I’m afraid that I have failed miserably. Some additional information has been released in response to MPs’ questions, but this is far from comprehensive and the data are dispersed, and also the companies concerned don’t appear, on the whole, to be publicising their involvement with the project. So we are left to speculate why so many companies have been called in to assist with presenting HS2 to a sceptical public, but I have to agree with Ms Seymour that seventeen seems an astonishing number.

The number of hands on the pump that HS2 Ltd appears to regard as necessary is probably due to the extremely difficult sell that the HS2 project poses: judging by the opinion polls, even the best efforts of the massed ranks of the great and the good of the public relations world have clearly failed to convince the taxpayers of the UK that HS2 is something that they want to pay for. My own experience has been that in virtually every conversation that I have had with people, whether they live near the route or not, I have been told that it is a total waste of money, or something similar. Clearly from her blog, Ms Seymour can be counted amongst the ranks of the unconvinced:

“It doesn’t matter how many PR companies are recruited to try to convince people that there’s a need for HS2 – they won’t find a compelling business case which is backed up by hard evidence.”

The noticeable lack of transparency in the way that HS2 Ltd is spending our money is a matter of great concern that has been thrust into the spotlight by recent events in connection with the planned awarding of the Phase 2b “development partner” contract. Following a cry of “foul” from unsuccessful tenderer Mace, the successful tenderer CH2M Hill has announced that it is “withdrawing its interest” in the £170 million contract (see footnote 4). This CH2M move has been heralded by HS2 Ltd as “a decision which we welcome”. You may think it strange that HS2 Ltd would welcome the loss of its favoured partner for the development of Phase 2b, and wonder why. I can only suggest that what HS2 Ltd is welcoming is the removal of the threat of an application for a judicial review by Mace, and the hope that the decision will draw a line under the matter and avoid the public scrutiny that the saga clearly warrants.

If the Government hopes that this matter will now be forgotten, particularly as Brexit is claiming all the headlines, then I am optimistic that they are sadly mistaken. After all, CH2M Hill is still very much involved with HS2 as development partner for Phase 1, and rumblings about the conduct of the matter have already been heard from the Opposition and other MPs (see footnote 5). I suggest that, at the very least, the situation clearly warrants the close scrutiny of the Commons Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.

If HS2 Ltd is determined to spend huge quantities of taxpayers’ money then it really must subject itself to public scrutiny regarding how that money is being disbursed. Making Annex A publically available is a welcome move towards the level of disclosure that circumstances dictate; it is regrettable, however, that this document required a parliamentary question to be asked for it to be released, rather than being published willingly. What proper public scrutiny now dictates is that the Government expands Annex A to include any other companies that have been contracted directly to work on the project by the DfT. It is also necessary that details of the work packages covered by each of the contracts that have been awarded are added to the annex, plus the contract value and actual expenditure on each, and for the schedule to be updated regularly.

Footnotes:

  1. See the article Antoinette Sandbach: Why I relived the day my baby died, in the middle of the House of Commons, Judith Woods The Telegraph, 4thNovember 2015.
  2. See the webpage High Speed Two: Written question – 65186, asked on 22ndFebruary 2017, Parliament UK website, answered on 2nd March 2017.
  3. See the webpage Why does HS2 need 17 different PR companies on its books?, Jill Seymour, UKIP website, 22ndMarch 2017. The blog adds that, “A further 12 other consultancy and production firms have also been handed lucrative contracts at our expense”. My use of this blog as a source document should not be taken to be an endorsement by me of the policies of any particular political party: I generally regard them all with equal contempt.
  4. See the article HS2 bidder drops out of £170m design deal over cronyism allegations, Alan Tovey The Telegraph, 30thMarch 2017.
  5. See the blog MPs call for independent inquiry into HS2 contract awards, Joe Rukin Stop HS2, 30thMarch 2017.

 

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by RW Waller on April 1, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    Thank you Peter yet again for your work on these blogs. The level of expenditure is mind-boggling. Regards Roger

    >

    Reply

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