One moment HS2’s chief was there, the next – pouff! Agatha Christie could have got a Poirot novel out of it
WHITEHALL’S mandarin in charge of HS2, Dame Bernadette Kelly, pitched up at the public accounts committee, which tries to make sure taxpayers’ money is not wasted. ‘Too late for that!’ cries the nation.
Dame Bernadette was hobbling on a crutch and had an arm in plaster. Been mown down by an out- of- control construction project? Hurt her wrist writing too many cheques?
Or was she attacked in the herbaceous borders by brainy Lord Adonis, the former transport secretary who first proposed the railway that now looks likely to cost £56billion? His lordship is upset the Manchester leg was recently scrapped by Rishi
Sunak. Dame Bernadette, leading a large contingent of HS2 bods, submitted to lengthy interrogation by Dame Meg Hillier and her committee. Dame Meg (Lab, Hackney South & Shoreditch) is a tremendously fast talker. Dame Bernadette matched her. So, nearly, did Sir Jon Thompson, new chairman of HS2. The three of them spoke so fast that it was like listening to Pinky & Perky. Must be a high-speed rail thing. Conversations at 225mph. If the staff canteen operates at the same velocity, they must have terrifying indigestion.
To costs. How could Sir John trim them? His answer, naturally, was that he planned to hire several new executives and create new committees. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the public sector operates. A financial whizz-kid from Barclays had been recruited and head-hunters had been employed to identify a chief executive to replace Mark Thurston, the £676,000-a-year civil servant who vanished from HS2 in the summer.
One moment Thurston, 56, was there, confident that HS2 was about to enter ‘an exciting new phase’; the next moment – pouff! – he had disappeared, leaving nothing but his trilby, a false moustache and a partnibbled slice of tipsy cake in the dining car. Did he jump? Was he pushed? Agatha Christie could have got a Poirot novel out of it. No one having rung British Transport Police’s ‘see it, say it, sorted’ hotline, it must have been a complete coincidence that mere weeks after Mr Thurston’s disappearance, Mr Sunak cut the project in half. Did Rishi bump him off?
Sir John worked previously at that temple to taut budgeting, the Ministry of Defence. Uh oh. Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh & Wickford) wondered how he could save money at HS2. Sir John replied that he was ‘streamlining executive governance’, ‘improving the management information so that it ran horizontally’ (he’s getting the hang of this railways lark), changing the ‘financial risk modelling’ and creating a new board sub- committee. He hoped soon to appoint a ‘chief railway officer’. This supremo, joked Mr Francois, would presumably be known as ‘The Thin Controller’. Sir John, whose bikini years are long gone, shot Mr Francois a rheumy eye. He really didn’t seem to think the wisecrack remotely funny.
DAMEBernadette, speaking fluent Whitehall-ese, was little more intelligible than a public announcement at Paddington station. She spoke of ‘key parameters’, ‘out-turn costs’, ‘plug-ins’, ‘counterfactuals’ and ‘ exogenous delay factors’. We heard of drivers of benefits, principal drivers of cost increases, and how to drive better outcomes. The only thing not being driven was a train. HS2, even in its smaller format, was not expected to open until some point between the years 2029 and 2033.
Dame Meg, 54, looking a little too obviously at her 70-year- old Tory deputy Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: ‘I wonder how many of us will be around then.’ Sir John: ‘Harsh.’
Greg Smith (Con, Buckingham), who loathes HS2 for the damage it has done to his constituency, wondered if people whose farmland and homes had been seized by the railway would now be allowed to buy it back. The HS2 brigade did lots of toothy- sucking. A slightly twitchy man called Mr Over (Mr Over Budget, surely) said he had a duty to ‘protect taxpayers’. And Dame Bernadette said ‘my remit is the test of managing public money’. She managed to do so with a straight face.