HS2 chair: We have a lot of work to do in persuading the public

Appearing before MPs, the chair of HS2 Allan Cook has reiterated how only completing Phase 1 of the scheme would be a “complete betrayal” and that he would be “looking at all the options” to make sure the scope is not reduced.

Cook was in the Commons to speak to MPs sitting on the transport select committee with the aim of the session to find out about his new role, how the scheme is progressing and gauge Cook’s views on the challenges HS2 faces.

Answering a question on challenges, the chair said there were several; interfacing with the community, getting the best out of the supply chain, and ultimately delivering the scheme within cost, schedule and scope.

Interestingly at the beginning on the session, the experienced engineer revealed he was first approached about the possibility of becoming chair in the early summer of 2018 and ended up finishing second in the process to Sir Terry Morgan, the man he would later replace in December.

Key to the hearing was finding out more about whether the project could still be delivered on budget, to time and to scope. Poised the question by the committee’s chair Lilian Greenwood, Cook said he was still working under the assumption it can be and that he will keep this under assessment, but if it was to change then he would take it to the board.

When asked about unnecessary spending and the scrutiny the £56bn scheme will face from outside, the new chair said it was vital that the organisation “constantly communicated” and remained open and transparent.

“We have to prove we have a real handle on what we are spending, we recognise we are spending taxpayer money and we have to provide that value,” Cook told MPs. “We are open to the scrutiny of our board, the DfT and the National Audit Office., I am very confident going forward we will continue to be as open and transparent as we can possibly be. 

He said HS2 would continue to use the best new technology and innovative solutions to overcome cost challenges. 

Cook came under pressure from MPs about the level of support for the scheme within the general public. A national poll conducted by ComRes recently suggested that public opinion of HS2 had hit rock bottom with just 7% of respondents believing HS2 will benefit them.

But the HS2 chair said efforts had continually been made to improve engagement over the last 12 years with 2000 people consulted on the project and a team of 100 was tasked specifically with reaching out to communities. 

But Cook was adamant he believed there was a “strong level of support” and that everyone he had spoke to in his short time had strongly supported it. 

Cook added: “From a community point of view, one of the challenges we absolutely face is to make sure we deal sympathetically with a great deal of empathy on what it is we are trying to do in developing this railways system throughout the UK. We are very aware of some of the challenges we are creating for individuals and communities.”

When asked how HS2 can avoid mistakes seen on similar major projects like Crossrail, Cook said the organisation was “committed to learning more”. “It has been a very salutary lesson for Crossrail. We will learn where appropriate from some of the things that happened,” the HS2 chair added.

When it came to diversity levels within the organisation, Cook said it “could be a lot better” when it came to senior levels and that he is a “very strong supporter” of diversity and inclusion and had spent the last five years within the Royal Academy heading up their diversity and inclusion division. He went on to say across all levels that 36% of people employed by HS2 were women and this was high when compared to the average in UK engineering.

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