The influence of councils on the HS2 project has been questioned at a parliamentary hearing, leading a top official to deny that spending £400m on Euston station was part of a ‘side deal’ with Camden Council.
The comments came as the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) questioned two top Department for Transport (DfT) officials and Simon Kirby, chief executive of Government-owned HS2 Ltd, as part of a new inquiry into HS2.
An artist's impression of HS2 at London's Euston station
The inquiry was announced following a National Audit Office (NAO) report late last month, which said the project was behind schedule and over budget.
NAO chief Sir Amyas Morse also took part in the PAC hearing and asked officials whether negotiations with Camden would ‘set a quite high, significant precedent for what can be got out of co-operating with the project’.
David Prout, the DfT’s director general of the high speed rail group, replied that the £400m being spent on enabling works for over-site development [above ground enabling works] at Euston would ‘have a good return, albeit over a long period of time, and it is the right thing to do’.
He added: ‘It is not a side deal that is done with Camden as a local planning authority.’
However, in evidence submitted to the PAC Camden expressed concern that the NAO report had found a £400m gap in respect of Euston enabling works, suggesting the pledged spending for over-station works had not been funded.
It also said HS2 Ltd was still failing to address its concerns and those of the community.
MPs also questioned expectations that Greater Manchester authorities would make a significant contribution towards the costs of taking the high speed line to Manchester Airport.
After one MP pointed out that expectations of a £230m contribution from Heathrow towards Crossrail had been over-optimistic, with only £70m actually provided, committee chair Meg Hillier asked: ‘Where does the risk lie if Manchester airport cannot come up with the cash?’
Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary at the DfT, replied: ‘I think the risk rests with Manchester airport,’ but was immediately contradicted by Mr Prout, who said: ‘No, the Greater Manchester authorities.’
Mr Rutnam also told MPs: ‘The programme continues to be on track to deliver the start of construction, as planned, next year, the completion of Phase 1, as planned, by the end of 2026.’
MPs also questioned officials about the disclosure in the NAO report that at the time of the 2015 spending review, Phase 2 of the scheme was over budget by £7bn, leading to the identification of potential savings of £9bn. Ms Hillier espressed ‘amazement’ that some savings had ‘just popped up’.