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Did HS2 “mislead” Parliament about cost estimates?

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A former head of Land and Property at High Speed Two, the company responsible for building the new high-speed railway between London and Leeds and Manchester, has told BBC Panorama that an early land and property cost estimate considered by MPs when they were deciding whether to give the project approval was “enormously wrong”.

It is the first time the HS2 insider has spoken publicly about his concerns about the project.

Doug Thornton, former Land and Property Director for HS2, led a team responsible for acquiring all the land interests thatHS2 needed to purchase to build the high-speed railway.

He claims not only were the value of many properties underestimated but the company knew that it might need thousands more than had been costed in that early estimate.

The Panorama team has spoken to another former senior HS2 insider who agrees that the early estimate MPs had then hadn’t been updated to reflect the predicted higher costs.

Thornton said “there was a gap of almost 100 per cent in terms of the numbers, wrong numbers of properties that the organisation had not budgeted for.”

HS2 says it followed the correct process to keep parliament updated on budgetary changes.

The spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, has investigated the land and property programme.  It found that estimated costs did increase significantly but concluded that HS2 wasn’t required to provide its more detailed updated property cost estimates to MPs.

The chief executive of HS2, Mark Thurston, told Panorama: “It’s perfectly normal that in a scheme as vast and as complex asHS2, that over time we have a greater understanding of the alignment of the route, how many land parcels and land areas it affects and what the full extent of the acquisition programme needs to be.”

The claims come amid recent turmoil at the company responsible for the biggest infrastructure project in Europe.

When the joint chairman of HS2 and the troubled Crossrail project, Sir Terry Morgan, resigned earlier this month he warned of possible cost issues ahead for HS2, talking of the “challenge inside the project” to say on time and on budget.

The government says HS2 will cost £56 billion, with around £27 billion of that going on the first phase of the line which runs between London and Birmingham.

Thurston has recently acknowledged a cost gap and that he is in talks with contractors to reduce costs.  But he told Panorama: “I’m not worried about overspending, I’m confident we’ve got a budget we can stand by.”

The railway company is involved in the biggest land and property acquisition programme since the second world war. It is buying a total of 70 square kilometres of land.

Panorama has spoken to a number of people whose properties are in the path of the high-speed railway and who complain of low valuations and delays in compensation.

Ron Ryall’s Elizabethan home is in the path of the viaduct that will carry the railway in Buckinghamshire. He says HS2 has offered him far less than the property is worth.

Paul Tropman who owns Wood Waste, a wood recycling business on the outskirts of Birmingham, says he has been left hundreds of thousands pounds out of pocket after his business was forced to relocate.  “I think they’ve overspent and the only way they can get their money back is by robbing the likes of us”, he told the BBC.

HS2 is still working to settle their case.  Its Chief Executive Mark Thurston says the company always pays a fair price and insists it has only had to use its compulsory purchase powers in a small number of cases.




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