Grimshaw faces another a year tweaking plans for Euston Station before submitting for planning consent despite High Speed 2 (HS2) having already spent £30 million on the station’s design
Information about the likely re-design was published yesterday (17 May) by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the all-party committee of MPs which investigates government expenditure.
The cost of HS2 has already rocketed to an estimated £106 billion but the PAC’s damning report concluded the rail project is ‘badly off course’ and accused HS2 and the Department for Transport (DfT) of keeping MPs ‘in the dark’.
The report also revealed that the design for Euston Station, which has already been submitted for planning, will have to be overhauled if HS2 and the DfT change key aspects of the station to cut costs.
It said the bodies are currently looking at changing the number of platforms the station would have, the number of services it would run and whether it should be designed and built in one or two stages.
‘If changes are made to Euston, HS2 estimates that it will need to undertake a further year of design work before resubmitting for planning consent,’ the PAC report said.
The committee concluded that it is ‘concerned by the huge uncertainty remaining with the design and delivery of Euston station’, adding that it is ‘a risky element of the programme because the build site is in a tight urban environment and on an operational railway’. The budget for Euston Station alone is £2.2 billion.
Elsewhere in the report, the PAC heavily criticised HS2 and DfT for deliberately withholding information from MPs and the public in a ploy to shield the project from criticism.
‘The department and HS2 seemed to believe that a lack of transparency with parliament and the public on the problems facing the programme would in some way protect it,’ it said.
The most senior civil servant attached to HS2, permanent secretary to the DfT Bernadette Kelly, failed to disclose to the committee that the project was running late and over budget on multiple occasions
At two evidence sessions, in October 2018 and May 2019, Kelly was specifically asked about the rail project’s delivery timeline and budget but did not flag serious problems.
Contractors had however already returned quotes far above original estimates in October 2018 and HS2 informed the Department for Transport that it could not deliver the project to the agreed cost and schedule in March 2019.
HS2’s accounts for the year ending 31 March 2019 also failed to give an accurate account of the project, the report added.
The DfT and HS2 have claimed they could not be more transparent with MPs due to commercial sensitivities and because they were still exploring options for the project.
The committee, which launched its inquiry into the project following the release of the National Audit Office’s report in January, said this was not “an adequate excuse”.
PAC deputy chair Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP said HS2’s conduct was among the worst he had come across in his nine years on the committee.
He said: ‘This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence.’
PAC was in the dark about serious cost overrun
‘Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform parliament that value for money on the project was at risk.’
In its summary, the committee said the project had ‘gone badly off course’ with its estimated budget had earlier exploded from £55.6billion to £88billion.
’We are unconvinced that there will not be further cost increases,’ it added.
It has also called for a number of improvements to HS2’s governance, including making regular reports to parliament about the project’s progress and costs, and for there to be no delay in revealing future problems with the programme.
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP said: ‘In the six-monthly reports the department has now agreed to give us, we want to see an honest, open account, and evidence of learning from past mistakes being applied to bring this project under control, to deliver it within the timeline and budget that have been agreed in justifying the project.’
She added: ‘There is no excuse for hiding the nature and extent of the problems the project was facing from parliament and the taxpayer.’
We are unconvinced that there will not be further cost increases
Aside from opaque reporting of progress, the committee said HS2 still lacked the skills and capability to manage the project. The DfT must make a clear assessment of where HS2 is lacking with skills and set out its plan to remedy them, it recommended.
Responding to the report, Lord Berkeley, former deputy chair of the Oakervee Review into the project, said: ‘As recently as last month, why did the DfT give the go-ahead to begin building HS2 when it must have known about the ongoing PAC review?
‘It is very unlikely that parliament would have given approval had it been provided with the necessary information in a timely manner.’
A DfT spokeswoman said the project was going ahead with a new approach to reporting and transparency.
She said: ‘We have comprehensively reset the HS2 programme, introducing a revised budget and funding regime, with significant reforms to ensure the project is delivered in a more disciplined and transparent manner.
‘This includes appointing the first dedicated HS2 minister, bi-annual updates to parliament and establishing a monthly ministerial task force, chaired by the secretary of state, to ensure the project has a rigorous scrutiny like the 2012 Olympics.’