HS2 likes to keep things secret

With £20bn already swallowed up and an estimated £80bn more needed, HS2 is good at disposing of large sums of taxpayers’ money. However, it is not so good at letting people know exactly who is spending that money and on what.

New Civil Engineer revealed last week a staggeringly long list of 291 organisations, companies and public bodies which were required – often under duress –  by  government–owned HS2 to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). While they include major contractors and consultants, like Atkins, Balfour and Deloitte, there are also local authorities, the National Trust and Historic England. Indeed they cover just about every organisation involved in the design, procurement, and preliminary construction works of the line, which will eventually link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

While it is not unusual for developers to insist on NDAs for specific purposes such as concern that  “leaks” may inflate land values or some contract confidentiality, critics say this blanket use of gagging orders – which involves not only companies but also all staff, is highly unusual.  Councils, for example, were even told that unless they signed the secrecy orders, they would not be allowed to engage with HS2 Ltd on issues such the location and design of new stations

What has alarmed critics further is that HS2 also redacts the minutes of its board meeting to conceal the identity of many people, who make crucial spending and planning decisions over the project. Only HS2 directors and senior managers are named. The company refused to say who was taking part in critical meetings, citing data protection legislation – even after the Information Commissioner had told the Eye, there should be a presumption in favour of providing the names of “individuals who attended the meeting in a professional capacity” and that it was also fair to do so. The unrepentant government-owned company maintained “the public interest in transparency” was outweighed by the rights of the individuals concerned. It said neither was there anything wrong with the proliferation of NDAs, which it maintained were “entered into by mutual consent”  to protect Hs2s and third parties’ confidentiality.

Which is typical of HS2s longstanding efforts to avoid any scrutiny. In May the Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, accused the Department of Transport – responsible for HS2 – of withholding key information about the spiralling costs and construction delays.

Two years ago a review by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) was also scathing about the lack of openness, which it said served  “those charged with the delivery of the project”, but created anger and resentment among local politicians and affected communities. As Nick Raynsford, the former planning minister who chaired the TCPA review, told the Eye: “I can perfectly understand why NDAs are necessary when, for example, different routes are being assessed as public knowledge might put up land prices. But I am utterly opposed to NDAs and redactions of public records being required when they undermine public trust in projects and may be shielding inappropriate relationships between developers and those making decisions over schemes.’

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