Tom Richmond: Time £750,000 high-speed rail chief faces the public

HS2 opponents in Wakefield.
HS2 opponents in Wakefield.
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IF HS2 chief executive Simon Kirby is worth £750,000 a year, it is time that Britain’s highest paid civil servant started earning his salary.

It means getting out of his London bunker, meeting more people directly affected by the construction of the high-speed rail network and answering direct questions about the UK’s largest infrastructure project.

Long before Ministers, I recognised that Britain required a major new railway to connect core cities, with this dedicated line allowing more provincial services to operate on regional routes.

But I had not realised that Mr Kirby was earning five times more than the Prime Minister until the annual accounts for HS2 were published this month – and this is when I became incensed.

I could probably justify this extortionate salary if it was being paid to a world-class engineer who had constructed high-speed rail in France or China.

It is not. Mr Kirby was previously managing director of the infrastructure arm of Network Rail, an organisation which does not exactly have a good track record – no pun intended – when it comes to delivering major projects. Just look at the fiasco over the upgrade of the West Coast main line on Mr Kirby’s watch.

But what appalled me was that HS2 still managed to spend a reported £185m on consultancy fees and lawyers last year and that its accounts were presented to Parliament on the very day that the House of Commons adjourned for summer. What a coincidence of timing.

It is this lack of accountability, transparency and scrutiny which brings politics – and public life – into disrepute.

Though MPs, elected mayors and councillors can be held to account by voters, so many top civil servants, the people charged with spending the public’s money wisely and responsibly, do not expect to explain their actions on a regular basis.

I’m told by a HS2 spokesman that issues of accountability, and public liaison, rest with Sir David Higgins the project’s chairman. He’s a former chief executive of the aforementioned Network Rail, although he did help mastermind the successful staging of the London Olympics.

This, says the spokesman, is because Mr Kirby is responsible for procuring the necessary engineering expertise so HS2 is “built on time and on budget”.

“Since the beginning of the year, the most senior staff at HS2, including Simon, have had more than 60 meetings, visits and telephone conversations with local politicians as well as community and business leaders from across Yorkshire. Our chairman and senior Government representatives have visited the whole route,” he added.

“In the community, our public engagement (which is the largest ever seen) is currently focused on the new route through South Yorkshire and we’ve spoken to more than 3,000 residents at a series of public information events over the last week. We will continue to hold similar events as well as running our 24/7 HS2 helpline.”

However, if engineering is the HS2 chief executive’s specialist subject, shouldn’t he be visiting communities along the route in person? Communities like Mexborough where 212 families on a new-build estate face losing their homes because of changes to the route – changes presumably sanctioned by the £750,000 a year man.

At the very least, residents are owed an explanation. And so, too, is Parliament – the Commons should insist Mr Kirby submits himself to scrutiny four times a year so he can answer concerns raised by MPs.

If not, it will be even harder to justify Mr Kirby’s salary, never mind the concept of high-speed rail and whether the projected £50bn cost would, at this late stage, be better spent on transforming regional train services.

BETTER news on the transparency front. Former civil service head Bob Kerslake – one time chief executive of Sheffield Council – believes there is a case for ex-BHS boss (Sir) Philip Green being stripped of his knighthood to prevent the honours system being brought into disrepute.

Bad news. Lord Kerslake suggested this process should be confidential. I disagree. The public interest demands total transparency – and assurances that the misguided individual who recommended the retailer for a knighthood on Tony Blair’s watch in 2006 is forbidden from making similarly ill-advised nominations in future.

Who in David Cameron’s government signed off the deal which entitled Nick Clegg, the Sheffield Hallam MP, to an annual allowance of £115,000 for five years?

Yes, the then Lib Dem leader was Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition, but Mr Clegg did receive a Cabinet Minister’s salary.

The Lib Dems would have been the first to cry foul if a politician from another party was found to be the recipient of an overly-generous goodwill gesture.

IF Theresa May wants to swiftly see off the threat of a second referendum vote on Scottish independence, she should simply say the following two words to Nicola Sturgeon – Barnett Formula.

This is the outdated financial system that entitles Scottish residents to receive around £1,500 more public funding each year than their counterparts in England, hence the anger in Yorkshire when David Cameron promised to retain a formula which was only introduced in the 1970s as a short-term concession.

If Ms Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, goes down the referendum route, Mrs May should scrap the Barnett Formula forthwith. It should just be sufficient to stop the United Kingdom’s break-up.

LABOUR never learns, does it? I ask the question after leadership contender Owen Smith, the Wales MP, toiled in Yorkshire this week begging for votes to unseat Jeremy Corbyn. He’s on a hiding to nothing. The last time Labour fielded a leader from Wales against a female Tory premier, it did not end happily – I refer, of course, to the various handbaggings that Margaret Thatcher gave Neil Kinnock, aka the Welsh windbag, on a regular basis.

I don’t see any evidence that Mr Smith will be a match for Theresa May.

WHAT a hero. If ever a picture illustrated Yorkshire’s famous grit and determination, it was nine-year-old Bailey Matthews from Doncaster completing last weekend’s triathlon at Castle Howard. The cerebral palsy sufferer, now a media personality in his own right, undertook the 100m swim, 4km bike ride and 1.3km run in one hour and 20 minutes, pushing away his walking frame as he reached the finish line. If gold medals were awarded at the Olympics for determination, willpower and good humour, not even Bailey’s own heroes, Leeds triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, would get close to this little nipper.

tom.richmond @ypn.co.uk