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MPs speechless as review of controversial government projects leaves out HS2

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Protesters against the HS2 line's route through a woodland area in London. Photo: Press Association

MPs were left speechless after a team of experts admitted they had left out HS2 of their investigation into the government’s poor handling of major infrastructure projects.

Politicians on a Westminster select committee reacted with disbelief as academics involved in Project X, an independent review sponsored by the government, said they were not looking at Europe’s largest infrastructure project.

One expert even highlighted officials’ concerns about information ending up in media outlets like Private Eye, and said his team needed to win their trust as they defended the omission of the controversial scheme.

A source in parliament supportive of HS2 suggested the lack of scrutiny gave the department for transport some helpful “breathing room” during the last few weeks of the Conservative leadership race.

But he speculated that it could be a sign transport officials had “conceded another HS2 review under prime minister Johnson” that was now on the horizon.

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Transport secretary Chris Grayling at a construction site linked to HS2. Photo: Press Association

It comes on the same day Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt proposed taking major infrastructure projects out of politicians’ hands, giving a national commission legal independence to prevent “short-term political interference.”

Academics involved in the review, which is investigating “why projects are so often late, over budget and fail to deliver their expected benefits,” also revealed their universities had signed non-disclosure agreements over parts of their work.

Several academics involved gave evidence in parliament on Tuesday morning about the review, which was launched by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with nine universities after it was first conceived by the government’s Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA).

The £56bn ($74bn) high-speed rail project has proved highly controversial.

Public administration committee member and Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins asked the academics if they agreed “the market is simply not there” for HS2’s projected 18 trains an hour from London to the north.

“I’m not sure...have we looked into HS2 in Project X?” professor Terry Williams of Hull University then asked his colleagues in response.

Dr Richard Kirkham of Manchester University then replied “No,” saying Project X was looking at project delivery and business cases but not “the minutiae of the detail” on issues like capacity.

Visibly stunned Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan faced an awkward silence from the witnesses as she asked: “Did you say you weren’t sure you’d looked at HS2 at all? It is the largest infrastructure project in Europe, and yet Project X hasn’t actually looked at it.”

She laughed out loud as Williams said: “We don’t see our job as looking at indiviaul projects.”

The chair Bernard Jenkin said his committee “would encourage” the review to look at lessons from HS2.

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The academics denied they had been discouraged from looking at the rail project.

Kirkham said those involved in HS2 had been “forthcoming,” but added: “Their concern is that their work occupies column inches in publications like Private Eye. They worry about whether they can be confident sharing information with us.

“We have to be able to maintain trust with those people. We have to gain confidence so they will share data and information with us...that is a really challenging and time-consuming process.”

A source told Yahoo Finance UK: “Great in the short term, but I wonder if it’ll mean that the department for transport have conceded another HS2 review under PM Johnson.

“But it buys them breathing room during the last weeks of leadership, and toward the summer recess. They can get all their ducks in a row ready for autumn.”

A think tank earlier this year warned the £56bn ($74bn) high-speed rail project was the “antithesis of economic rebalancing,” potentially worsening economic inequalities between London and the rest of the UK.

Additional reporting by Ben Gartside.