When previously writing about HS2, I could be accused of having committed a habitual sin of a footling comment writer: having my cake and eating it.
In the context of Jeremy Hunt’s need to find some quick savings last Autumn, I suggested HS2 was a prime example of low-hanging fruit. Already set to cost three times the £33 billion originally predicted, cancelling future sections would free up £50 billion, whilst leaving some cash spare to spend on local transport links in the North and Midlands. “Robbing the White Elephant to pay the Red Wall”, as I put it.
But when returning to the subject first for CapX and then in a recent ToryDiary, I made an honest admission. Yes, HS2 is far too expensive, nowhere near the silver bullet for regional inequality its starriest-eyed defenders have marketed it as, and would never be approved today. But the project was about capacity, as much as speed. Cancelling it is a depressing sign of our national inability to build vital infrastructure.
My natural concern with spending taxpayers’ money efficiently rubbed against my youthful yearning for the fulfillment of my fiercest Anglofuturist fantasies. Yet if an investigation by The Sunday Times is to be believed, I should have stuck to my guns last November (and owe the Prime Minister something of an apology).
The size and explosivity of the report’s bombshell allegations are large enough to make Little Boy look like a party popper. Senior executives at HS2 Ltd are said to have used misleading projections, shredded documents, and forced out whistleblowers to ensure money flowing into the project. The suggestion is that MPs were kept in the dark whilst voting on laws to keep HS2’s construction going.
HS2 Ltd ferociously denies the accusations; its internal fraud unit is investigating allegations of a cover-up. But the report is still shocking – and goes some way in explaining why HS2’s bill has ballooned so considerably.
A former analyst of the project told the paper that he tried to alert ministers, the National Audit Office, and HS2’s fraud section, but was told to “concentrate on something else”. Another source said she had her phone confiscated and was pressured (and then sacked) after being seen with a whistleblower. Copies of a 2015 Deloitte report investigating costs are reported to have been shredded.
The impression given is that HS2 Ltd’s management were fundamentally unwilling to face any sort of challenge to their plans, lest Westminster’s largesse ran out. There seems to have been a conspiracy of silence, with anyone suggesting one or two projections might be a bit dodgy being cast out. Internal estimates warning of spiraling costs were thus suppressed in favour of more conducive figures for the public domain. All of this is denied (obviously, Mandy Rice-Davies rules apply).
If even some of these claims are true, it raises clear questions about how the arms-length governance of HS2 Ltd allowed costs to run out of control – and why our cost per km of high speech rail is the highest of any major country. But it also raises questions about the actions of ministers themselves, and of MPs who failed to make the right inquiries about a project running off the rails.
Fans of The Simpsons amongst ConservativeHome’s readership will be aware of the classic episode “Marge vs the Monorail”. The clueless residents of Springfield are conned by a smooth-talking salesman into stumping up for a faulty monorail. It falls to the matriarch of the titular yellow family to stop the titular purchase from destroying the town. Leonard Nimoy cameos, if that helps.
One doesn’t need to suggest that HS2 completed as originally envisaged would have brought similar disaster to the residents of Crewe, Manchester, and Leeds to think something similar to Springfield’s wilful blindness might have been going on in the inter-relation between HS2 Ltd and politicians. As those building the line peddled increasingly fantastic claims of its benefits, MPs continued to nod the project through.
Whether the claims of The Sunday Times are substantiated or not, the buck for HS2’s spiralling costs ultimately stops with the ministers commissioning the project and the MPs voting it funding even after it became clear its original £33 billion price tag was an unfunny joke. The report points to several politicians – including Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, and Nusrat Ghani – who were warned about the financial catastrophe roaring down the tracks but did little to nothing to stop it.
Those who did raise concerns – like Chris Grayling – found themselves shuffled out of position before they could take action. Others have shown a remarkable ability to shift their views on their project based on both their current portfolio and the state of their leadership ambitions. As the private and public figures became ever more ludicrous, spat out the Kool-Aid and dared call out the Emperor’s New Railway.
Until now. Cancelling HS2 is hardly a Prime Ministerial legacy as epoch-defining as winning the war, smashing the unions, or, erm, abolishing resale price maintenance. But Rishi Sunak deserves the thanks of taxpayers everywhere for having the guts to cancel the rest of a misguided misadventure that his predecessors had allowed to become the biggest embarrassment for Britain’s railways since they used Jimmy Saville as a mascot.
Then again, my cake-based balancing act remains relevant. Because if we can’t be sure we can trust non-departmental bodies like HS2 Ltd to be honest about costs, how the hell can we ever use them to build anything in the future?