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Critical HS2 report to be released following Charles’ black-spider letters ruling

Critical HS2 report to be released following Charles’ black-spider letters ruling

🕔30.Mar 2015

Highly critical assessments of the HS2 high speed rail project which have been kept under wraps by the Government look certain to be published following a three year battle for openness, reports Paul Dale.

The Major Project Authority reports about HS2 from November 2011 are understood to have rated the £50 billion scheme as ‘amber-red’ and warned it was in danger of failing – but have never been placed in the public domain.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin refused to release the document, even citing secrecy rules applied to sensitive material during the Iraq war, and claimed information in the reports is out of date and no longer applicable.

However, it’s likely the Government will  have to make the report public following a Supreme Court ruling in the so-called Prince Charles black spider letters case.

The court ruled by three to five that the Government had acted unlawfully in preventing the Information Commissioner from releasing the prince’s hand-written letters to ministers which are said to reveal his forthright views on many sensitive political issues.

This means that the veto can no longer be used in the case of the HS2 assessments.

The court’s ruling comes at a difficult time for HS2 supporters and the Government.

While the documents are unlikely to be released this side of the General Election, the reports are bound to cast fresh doubt over the viability of building a high speed rail line from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds and Manchester in a second phase.

Whichever political party, or parties, is in control after May will have to decide quickly whether to press ahead with the first phase of HS2 from Euston to Birmingham Curzon, which is due to open in 2026.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls recently said Labour would ask “big questions” about whether the second leg of HS2 – linking Birmingham with Manchester and Leeds – made any sense and added that the proposed east-west HS3 line should jump ahead in the queue.

Mr Balls told the Birmingham Post: “The idea that we wait to do east west until after we have done the second phase of north south is topsy turvey. It has no economic or business logic at all.”

In the past the shadow chancellor has questioned the validity of HS2 and told the Chamberlain Files that he would “not write a blank cheque” and would seek to reduce the cost of the scheme.

Since then Labour has appeared to be on board and backed the high speed link in principle.

Any doubts by Mr Balls and the shadow front bench would be sharply out of step with the Labour-controlled core city councils of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. They see the railway as a major generator of jobs and economic growth.

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic growth plans are, to a large extent, based on the regeneration opportunities and thousands of jobs HS2 is expected to bring to land around planned stations in Birmingham city centre and at the NEC/airport.

Mr Balls’ remarks prompted the Prime Minister to describe his comments as “a slap in the face for Birmingham” and other cities in a sign that HS2 could yet be an issue in the General Election.

Information Commissioner Graham Smith reacted by ruling that updated Major Project Authority reports about HS2 must be released because they can no longer be regarded as “internal” Government documents.

HS2 Ltd is not a government department but a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB). Mr Smith said HS2 Ltd was set up “precisely to act independently of government and at arm’s length from ministers”.

In January 2014 the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, refused a previous demand that the Department for Transport’s copies of the report be published. Faced with losing that case in a tribunal, Mr McLoughlin made use of a rare veto previously used to bury Iraq war secrets.

The use of this veto will now be challenged in the courts.

A judicial review was brought by the Information Commissioner against the Governments’ decision to over-rule Mr Smith and block publication. This can now go ahead, following the Supreme Court ruling over the release of letters written by Prince Charles.

In June 2014, Mr Justice Singh granted permission to proceed with a judicial review, however, as some of the points of law were the same in both cases he ordered that the HS2 case should not begin until the Prince Charles case had been ruled upon.

Three of Supreme Court judges who found against the Government held that the veto can only be used if ministers can show that the facts or circumstances have changed substantially since the tribunal’s decision to publish, which was clearly not the case regarding the HS2 reports. The other two judges said that the veto could be used but only where there was the ‘clearest possible justification’ which did not exist in this case.

In the case of HS2, the official justification used by Government for the veto was to protect civil servants. A leaked letter to the Prime Minister from Mr McLoughlin and Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude revealed the real reason was that publication would “create political and presentational difficulties”, continuing: “Counsel has advised that it will be better to veto now rather than after an adverse tribunal decision.”

Robert Goodwill, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the DfT dismissed the need for the publication of the November 2011 report in a Westminster Hall debate last week, saying it is: “An historical report that is out of date. We are working on much more up-to-date information”, the reality is that the most recent MPA report on HS2 from last year raised 75 serious issues on HS2.

On the 26th November 2014, Sir David Higgins, Executive Chairman of HS2 Ltd told the House of Commons Governance Select Committee: “I had a meeting with them (the MPA) yesterday and the initial report said: “There are 75 different complex questions that we have been asked to address.” I said: “There are probably only 10 things today on this project that you need to understand and take judgement on, to see whether we are on track or not.”

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