A Personal Perspective on HS2, part 2

Brian Thompson  |  Published: Mar 18th 2016

Looking Back, a personal perspective – part 2

The Select Committee Process

The Select Committee have limited powers but could, if they wished, cause the establishment real heartache if they so desired. They did not do so.

What is clear is that they were not provided with the tools to do the job properly. They had no money to employ their own independent   experts, -instead relying on the promoters experts. Apart from the obvious conflict of interest the result was that any alternative view was ignored,  side-lined or rubbished as wrong. It was impossible to have a proper technical discussion/debate. The danger of this is that the promoters (who do not have a good history of delivering) start to believe their own hype that they have all the answers – sadly they do not.

Perhaps most decisive of all is the guidance that George Osborne gave the Select Committee. Listening to the committee it was clear they had been told it had to be a ‘value for money test’. No issue with that, but why did they only look at construction costs. The environment was given little value, property blight will apparently not exist until the railway is built and traffic disruption, construction impacts, health impacts just don’t count. This is an error of judgement. The result of this is that the Select Committee appeared to be only comfortable tinkering around the edges.

It was obvious that while most petitioners attempted to put forward rational arguments with evidence to support it, the promoter merely tried to brush it aside  with assertions. A clear example comes to mind when Mr Mould told us we did not have a peak noise issue and then proceeded to show and talk about an average noise map graph.

As most petitioners discovered it was not a level playing field. The promoter’s QC – paid for by the taxpayer was always quick to dismiss any concerns we had or discount alternative views. The other game the HS2 team played was if they did not have an answer or it was embarrassing was to simply  ignore it or tell the committee they would come back to it later(whether they did or not is a moot point) – thus stopping any debate or discussion. The petitioners simply being timed out.

Failure of the Civil Service

Most people understand that there is a Civil Service Code and consequently expected to be treated fairly, honestly and with respect. It did not happen. HS2 Ltd. with the DfT displayed all the signs of a bully that ignored the concerns, needs or questions of the people impacted by the project. From the terrible property compensation schemes through to the opaque information provided there was little to no effort to be unbiased or transparent with data. A sad day for the civil service.

The other approach they used was to deny petitioners key information and thus stifle proper debate and enquiry. The example of construction costs is a clear example. Given the clear guidance about value for money a detailed understanding of costs of the various alternatives was necessary to get anywhere. However if you refuse to publish any detailed cost estimates because they are commercially sensitive (well before any contracts have been tendered) and then provide different information with no explanation of the changes 3 days before everyone is due to appear in front of the Select Committee –then the whole debate descends into chaos.  It is hardly surprising the Select Committee were not convinced by anyone (except possibly HS2 who were briefing behind the scenes.

Finally on my last visit to the Select Committee it struck me that they were very ‘pally’ with the promoters. Hardly surprising after rubbing shoulders with them  for 2 years but how objective had they become?

What did work

I have to say the Select Committee were polite and welcoming to the petitioners and did give people a good listening to. Their work on trying to get petitioners fair compensation for property blight was excellent. Equally their stamina in hearing all those petitions was commendable.  I  also think the administrative process managed by the clerk to the committee  of helping petitioners from registering their petition to appearance was excellent showing superb organisation and effectiveness. Lastly but not least, as I have said before, I thought the petitioners from Wendover were excellent and gave a very powerful  message. It is just a shame the Select Committee were not truly listening

Obviously the project is still moving forward. We need to continue to oppose this senseless waste of money. It will be interesting to see what the House of Lords can do within the ‘narrow’ remit they are allowed.

Brian Thompson

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