Calls for HS2 fraud probe as Rishi Sunak urged to scrap ‘white elephant’

Susanna Reid quizzes Rishi Sunak over HS2

The spiralling costs of the HS2 project should be the subject of an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, a group campaigning to scrap the high-speed rail link has claimed.

Stop HS2 issued its scathing assessment as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn on the future of the controversial project.

The future of the scheme, which aims to connect London with Birmingham and Manchester via trains travelling at up to 225mph, is currently hanging in the balance – with reports circulating on Monday it would be scrapped, which the Tories have since denied.

The scheme was given an initial budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 but costs have ballooned, with an estimate of up to £98 billion – in 2019 prices – in 2020. Since then soaring inflation will have pushed costs even higher.

HS2’s eastern leg between Leeds and the East Midlands was scrapped by the Government in 2021, and in March the Government announced that construction of the Birmingham to Crewe leg of HS2 would be delayed by two years.

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Founder of Stop HS2 Joe Rukin said: “HS2 has always been a totally wasteful vainglorious white elephant.

”HS2 has been run with a bunker mentality that has ignored every attempt to scrutinise the project, all of the well-founded criticism has been dismissed and there has been not a shred of integrity or transparency as HS2 has been run in the most unaccountable way possible, and they’ve just kept getting away with it, and that it is why this is now the most expensive train wreck in history.”

Mr Rukin said the project need to stopped “right now”, and called for a full inquiry, “preferably a fully resourced fraud investigation”.

He explained: “Because the phase one budget is pretty much blown already, but not a single track has been laid and HS2 is only going to get more expensive and more useless if it isn’t cancelled in full right now.”

The cost of had already trebled from the original budget, Mr Rukin explained, adding: “Every time the cost has gone up, the lobbying from the construction industry has got louder.

“We believe it is absolutely clear that ministers and civil servants have deliberately concealed the truth about the costs of HS2 and other concerns and failings around this project, and it is now time for a full-scale investigation from the Serious Fraud Office.”

Penny Gaines, Chair of Stop HS2 , continued: “Following on from on the pause of the route into Euston and the cancellation of the unviable eastern leg of HS2, cancelling another leg of HS2 would be great news.

“However this is very much death by a thousand cuts, it’s time the Government, put this white elephant out of its misery and cancelled HS2 in full.

“The remaining section between the London suburbs and Birmingham clearly has no economic case and is causing huge environmental damage.

“There was never a good case for HS2 to start off with, and commuting patterns have massively changed over the last decade, especially with the pandemic.”

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Since the last review into HS2, was led by Doug Oakervee, himself a former chair of HS2 Ltd, who came out in favour of building the rail link, parts of the project have been ditched or put on long term pause, Ms Gaines said.

She added: “Video-conferencing and other digital technologies, which Stop HS2 have said were an alternative right from the start, have had a much faster growth than expected at the start of 2020, whilst construction costs increases have far out-stripped inflation, making the HS2 economic case even weaker than before.

“HS2 should be cancelled in its entirety as soon as possible.”

Mr Sunak today would not be drawn on speculation that he is set to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 line.

The Prime Minister said the price of the scheme had gone “far beyond” what was originally planned but declined to publicly say he would save billions by cancelling the Birmingham to Manchester leg.

Mr Sunak, in Manchester for the Conservative Party conference, could use his set-piece speech tomorrow to announce the decision but is likely to soften the blow by spending on other projects for the north.

He told Times Radio: “It’s clear that the costs of this programme have escalated far beyond what anyone thought at the beginning.

“I know there’s lots of speculation on it but what I would say is I’ll approach this in the same way I approach everything in this job, I will take the time to look at it properly, get across the detail and then decide what’s right for the country.

“The sums involved are enormous and it’s right that the Prime Minister takes proper care over it.”

An HS2 spokesman said: “HS2 Ltd is transparent about costs. We are operating within our annual funding envelope set by the government and six-monthly updates are delivered by the Department for Transport to parliament. All procurement activities over £10m are referred to the Cabinet Office for approval.

“Our annual accounts are audited by the National Audit Office and HS2 Ltd’s internal audit function is provided by the Government Internal Audit Agency.

“Furthermore, the Department for Transport has observers on the HS2 Ltd Board, as well as the audit and risk committee and the remuneration committee.”

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