30th June 2021
Public Accounts Committee
High Speed 2: Progress at Summer 2021
24th June 2021
Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport
Clive Maxwell, Director General for High Speed Rail, Department for Transport
Mark Thurston, Chief Executive, HS2 Ltd
The committee heard about the amount of disruption incurred during the planning and building of HS2.
Opening the session, the committee asked the panel about their different concerns with the different stages of the project.
Mark Thurston, Chief Executive, HS2 Ltd, outlined that the focus of Phase 2b would be looking at getting the Bill in place. Phase 2A, which received Royal Assent earlier this year, would focus on implementation and were currently looking at a partner to deliver this. He added that the concerns for Phase 1 would be focusing on completing the land acquisitions and mobilising the necessary work for the civil as well as major procurement projects. He acknowledged the impact of COVID for the Phase 1 work and added that the design work for all four of the Civils programme was a key focus.
Thurston said that HS2 understood that people along the route who didn't choose to live alongside the work that was being carried out had every right to peacefully protest but that the action seen was anything but lawful, becoming violent and disruptive. He emphasised the need to protect their workforce, as well as the protesters and local people in some cases.
He told the committee that around £75m of taxpayer money had been spent dealing with HS2 protesters. He acknowledged that people had every right to peacefully protest, but the action had become increasingly violent and disruptive. Police had arrested approximately 300 people, leading to 9 prosecutions, he added.
He went on to elaborate that the protests had drawn resources away from the emergency services at a time when the country had other priorities for such services.
Thurston said he met with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Department for Transport officials to ensure that all the resources of the Government were brought together to deal with the activists.
He went on to call for a cross-agency response, noting that there was only so much HS2 Ltd and their suppliers could do here adding that they were not geared up to deal with the sort of extensiveness of this. He added that while they had done a reasonable job of protecting the programme in the round, they did not expect this issue to go away any time soon.
Protests had been significant on phase one of the route, from London to Birmingham, and were starting on phase two to Crewe and Manchester, Thurston said.
Noting the £22bn that had already been spent or contracted, which was half of the total amount, Thurston pointed to the £10bn of contingency with 5 per cent of this having been already spent. He asserted his confidence that they would still be able to deliver the project with the funds available.
The committee probed whether these funds included the work on Euston with Thurston suggesting that Euston should be dealt with separately due to the complexity of the site. He stated that he remained confident of the site with three of the four stations already commissioned.
On the jobs that would be created from this project in the regions, specifically in the midlands and the North, Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport, noted that they did not have raw numbers requested. She asserted that HS2 was directly responsible for 16,000 jobs, set to to increase to 30,000 at the peak, adding that the work in the Midlands would create about 7,000 skilled jobs. She welcomed the strong impact on jobs on the grounds.
Kelly praised the new leadership at the Rail College and their partnership with the University of Birmingham. She defended the work that had been done and stressed that she was not responsible for the College and emphasised that it was in everyone's benefit that the Department had a very strong relationship with the College and welcomed the opportunity for through skills.
Clive Maxwell, Director General for High Speed Rail, Department for Transport, confirmed that the Department had been involved with the handover of the College to the University.
Thurston added that the majority of people needed for the project came from the construction trade and noted their work with the Construction Leadership Council to ensure that the supply was there for their market demand.
Biodiversity losses and gains
The committee focused on the environment, specifically for communities around Buckinghamshire, and how the goals on biodiversity would be met. Thurston focused on Phase 1 and noted the "green corridor" for their reinvestment into the environment ensuring more natural wildlife was invested than would be taken away. He added the measures that were being taken to drive carbon out of the supply chains.
He added that the first Environment Sustainability Report would be published this Autumn to lay out their credentials in this space. He welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate the measures they had taken to support and rebuild the natural environment.
Maxwell stressed their work with Natural England to draw on their expertise and added their work with local organisations to support the environment in local areas.
There had been a much more proactive engagement from the contractor's point of view, Thurston described to deal with the issues as they emerged, he described. Keeping local websites more up to date was one way that they were improving engagement, he added.