The PAC tells us only part of the story

15 January, 2015

The Public accounts Committee calls for a 30-year strategic plan in its critique of HS2, and we agree with them, but suspect that in 30 years’ time, we’ll still all be waiting. DfT has done well to get rail (and now highways) onto rolling 5-year plans, and off the drip-feed of annual budget setting.

“The PAC should be aware that it is the private sector that will design, build and operate HS2, creating a much stronger UK-based rail capability in the process”, says Greengauge 21 Director Jim Steer.

“So whereas the PAC presumes that it is for Government to deliver the development around high-speed stations, saying the work around Ebbsfleet (on HS1) has come 7 years too late, it’s much better that the private sector makes a leading contribution too. It would only add to wider project costs falling to the tax-payer if Government were to ‘force’ development prematurely, rather than leverage private sector investment as is now happening at Ebbsfleet”, he added.

Equally, Government is criticised by the PAC for failing to invest in people to support such a major infrastructure project. In fact, the private sector has welcomed the initiative taken by Government in 2014 to create HS2 Skills colleges in Birmingham and Doncaster, and is taking its own complementary initiatives. These include the Siemens’ training centre at Northampton and the formation of HSR Industry Leaders to progress skills development and awareness of the wide opportunities that HS2 brings for UK-based companies.

Overall, of course, it is fair for the PAC to point out that there are risks in a project whose two phases have a £42bn budget. But Greengauge 21 believes that any balanced assessment would also note opportunities too – for instance, to ensure that the planning lead time is used to ensure that the project addresses wider social and environmental objectives, as well as the primary aim of supporting balanced growth in the national economy.

“Social objectives can include providing lasting skills and jobs for those that get passed by for smaller-scale ventures, categorised as ‘hard to employ’ ”, suggests Greengauge 21. Sadly, there is no Government Committee established to scrutinise and support such project opportunities, to be set alongside the PAC’s risk-based assessments.

You can read the report here