After much hoo-ha from the tiny anti Hs2 campaign who did their best to build up the programme, Panorama aired at 19:30 last night. The 30 minute programme, titled “Hs2; Going off the rails?” was billed by Hs2 antis as a smoking gun that would herald the downfall of the project as it would ‘lift the lid’ on the (supposedly) massive cost overruns and shaky finances.
The reality? It told us nothing new at all. Not a single thing.
The main thrust of the programme was an interview with a former employee of H2 who’s turned “whistleblower” and made all sorts of allegations that Hs2 had grossly underestimated the costs of purchasing land and property needed to build the line. None of these allegations were new, they date back to 2015. In fact, they’d been investigated by the National Audit Office who published their report into the matter back in September (link). The full report is 36 pages long and looks into all aspects of land and property purchase. Here’s the opening.
Part One Introduction to HS2 Ltd’s acquisition of land and property 9
Part Two The cost of land and property 16
Part Three Performance of HS2 Ltd’s land and property function 27
Appendix One Our investigative approach 32
So, what were the NAO’s conclusions and key findings?
1 The estimated cost to acquire land and property for Phase One has increased significantly since the start of the programme.
2 The estimate has increased for a range of reasons, such as scope increases and the introduction of additional compensation schemes.
3 HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the cost to acquire land and property has improved, and now provides a reasonable basis for monitoring the cost of the property acquisition programme
4 HS2 Ltd forecasts that costs will remain within available funding, but it is still very early in the property acquisition programme
5 The Department deposited an estimate of the cost to acquire land and property, and a list of the property it expected to acquire, with the hybrid Bill, as required by Parliament
6 The property acquisition programme is currently on track but there is a long way to go and risks remain
7 HS2 Ltd’s land and property team has become better established since 2015
8 Only half of advance payments to claimants have been completed within the required three-month period from HS2 Ltd receiving a claim request
Now, the headline “half” of advance payments needs putting into perspective. Here’s what else the NAO said.
” Under compulsory purchase, HS2 Ltd is required to pay claimants 90% of HS2 Ltd’s valuation of the property within three months of receiving a claim, or the date of possession, whichever is later. The remainder is then paid upon agreement of the final value of the property. Between March 2017 and August 2018 payments have been later than the three months or forecast to be later in 52 out of 108 cases. HS2 Ltd has analysed the causes of delays. It considers that in 35 cases, the main reason is that claimants have not provided the required information in a timely manner. HS2 Ltd considers that the remaining 17 cases have been caused, at least in part, by HS2 Ltd (paragraphs 3.14 to 3.15).
So, just 17 cases of delays (out of 108) due to Hs2 Ltd, in other words 15.74%. Undoubtedly room for improvement, but hardly the scandal some try to pretend.
The NAO then go on to their concluding remarks
9 It is understandable that concerns have been raised with us about HS2 Ltd’s land and property acquisition programme given that it affects so many individuals and businesses. Although HS2 Ltd has made efforts to improve its land and property function since 2015, there is work to be done to support claimants to receive timely compensation where they are due an advance payment.
10 While HS2 Ltd’s estimate of the cost of land and property has increased significantly over time, cost estimates, particularly in this sort of major land acquisition programme, are inherently uncertain and subject to change as more information becomes known about both the design and operation of the railway, and the nature of the land and properties required. HS2 Ltd’s current estimate is within its agreed funding envelope from HM Treasury and provides a reasonable basis from which it can monitor the potential cost to compensate property owners and tenants affected by the construction of the railway. However, it is still very early in the property acquisition programme and too soon to determine with certainty what the final outturn will be.
So, no evidence of corruption, malfeasance or any other shenanigans. The NAO report is measured and balanced. It highlights the difficulties for such a major project as Hs2, pointing out that, “in order to build Phase One of the railway, the government will need to acquire approximately 70 square kilometres (more than 17,000 acres) of land along the route of the railway. HS2 Ltd estimates that it will have to compensate between 6,000 and 10,000 claimants who have land and property interests affected by the route, including property owners, leaseholders and tenants, and issue and process up to 50,000 compulsory purchase notices between 2017 and 2023”
All of this puts Panorama into perspective. As well as the ‘whistleblower’, they had a short interview with Surveyor Michael Byng, who trotted out his (long known about) claim that Hs2 would spend it’s entire budget on building Phase 1. No evidence was offered to support his claim, which wasn’t explored in any detail and it was rebutted by Hs2’s Chief Executive, Mark Thurston, and err – that was it. All a bit of a waste of time really.
The final part of the programme involved interviewing several people who were complaining that Hs2 wasn’t offering them enough money for their homes so was ‘robbing’ them, or that payments were late. None of them were new, in fact most of them had been featured in the media regularly over the past year. Such as this one.
All in all, Panorama was nothing more than a rehash of old stories and allegations – hardly a smoking gun that was going to bring down the project. The NAO had already addressed and dismissed the main complaint, and the fact they could find just 5 from 6,000 to 10,000 claimants who were complaining was never put into perspective.
You could almost sense the disappointment amongst the remaining Hs2 antis. StopHs2 didn’t even get a look-in and the reaction on social media was muted. Hs2 didn’t trend on Twitter and there was no ‘Twitterstorm’ just a few dozen people tweeting their outrage – many of whom were the usual suspects! The Stophs2 Facebook page was equally muted. Here it is this morning. Just 16 comments and 172 shares!
The reaction to the programme on social media and elsewhere reflects what I’ve been saying for a very long time. The anti Hs2 campaign’s a busted flush. Its influence is as insignificant as the actual number of people still protesting and programmes like this are no smoking gun. If his is the best they can go, it’s all over bar the moaning. Stop Hs2 is dead. Ironically, Joe Rukin himself gave the game away with this pompous but utterly misguided tweet
“Thousands” of people on Stophs2’s mailing list? Not tens or hundreds, just thousands – despite 6.5 million people living on the route of Hs2?
On another matter, a little bit of other news slipped out unseen yesterday. Remember the High Speed 2 Action Alliance? They used to be the main Stophs2 group until they gave up the ghost way back in 2016 after a long and futile campaign of legal challenges, including Judicial Reviews. Their last action was to allege a failure by the United Kingdom to comply with its obligations under article 7 generally, and article 7 in conjunction with article 6(3) and (4) of the Aarhus Convention by failing to ensure public participation in relation to the decisions issued by the Secretary of State for Transport on 10 January 2012 in the Command Paper “High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps”
Yesterday, their legal people, Landmark Chambers, announced they’d failed as there was no breach, thus driving the last nail in the coffin of Hs2aa!