Former HS2 chair rejects spending-frenzy allegations

Allan Cook says No.10, HM Treasury and DfT have been fully involved in financial decisions about rail project
Aerial view of preparatory work for HS2 at Euston Station in London, much of which has now been paused. Photo: HS2 Ltd

By Jim Dunton

29 Sep 2023

A former chair of HS2 Ltd has vehemently rejected claims that spending at the Department for Transport-owned company has run out of control, despite the government’s best efforts.

Allan Cook, who was chairman of HS2 from 2018 to 2021, said briefings about profligate behaviour at the firm tasked with delivering the nation’s new high-speed rail network were wrong. He added that No.10, HM Treasury and the DfT were closely involved in all financial decisions.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak is believed to be considering scaling back the scope of the already-under-construction high-speed rail network – and either axing or delaying its second phase connecting Manchester with the West Midlands and London.

In recent days Sunak has repeatedly avoided giving “yes” or “no” answers to direct questions about whether the Manchester arm of the line will be scrapped. Plans for another phase of HS2 connecting Leeds with the West Midlands and London were dropped in November 2021.

Briefings from No.10 sources have described Sunak as being “alarmed” at the rising cost of HS2 and accused bosses of “over speccing” the project and behaving like “kids with the golden credit card”.

The government is notoriously coy about releasing up-to-date cost projections for HS2. Figures from last year suggested a total of £71bn, expressed in 2019 prices. Soaring inflation in the construction industry over the past four years is likely to have pushed that figure well above £100bn. Earlier this year the government announced it was pausing work on HS2’s London terminus after a near doubling of costs to £4.8bn emerged for Euston Station alone.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Cook – who served as lead non-executive director at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2014-16 – said he was “dismayed” at the prospect of further sections of HS2 being scrapped or paused.

“The implication, it would seem, is that the project is now out of control despite the government's best efforts,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Representatives from the Treasury and transport department sat on the HS2 board during my time as chairman. There was total transparency of every decision and every penny spent.

“HS2 had monthly meetings with ministers and officials from No.10, the Treasury and Department for Transport. Any suggestion the company is ‘massively over-speccing’ the structure is incorrect.”

Cook said his “biggest frustration” was the “constant short-sighted approach” to large infrastructure programmes in the UK.

He said: “The most scandalous waste of money would be to end the line at Birmingham, incurring all of the costs and delivering very little real benefit.”

National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt echoed those sentiments at a conference organised by construction industry publication Building Magazine this week.

He said running HS2 as essentially a “shuttle” between Birmingham and Old Oak Common in west London – as the government’s most stripped-back model could become – made “no economic sense”.

“While politics will never be removed from infrastructure, and ministers will understandably want to shape the direction of major programmes, we need to face up to the implications of chopping and changing policy,” he said.

“Costs have to be controlled in a serious and methodical manner. But lopping off legs will only reduce the capacity and connectivity benefits the full project will bring to some of this country’s major city regions.”

Armitt added that rowing back on the scope of HS2 would send “an incredibly negative message around the world about the UK’s approach to major infrastructure projects”.

In July, HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston – the nation’s highest-paid government employee – announced he would stand down from the role after six years in post.

Current HS2 chair Sir Jon Thompson, a former HM Revenue and Customs perm sec, will serve as interim chief executive of the company from next month.

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