Belfast Telegraph

HS2 Ltd vows to 'tighten up' procurement process after conflict of interest row

HS2 Ltd has pledged to "tighten" the way it awards contracts following a row over alleged conflicts of interest.

Engineering firm CH2M withdrew from a major deal involving the high speed rail project last month amid concern about its close links with HS2 Ltd.

Losing bidder Mace had threatened to sue HS2 Ltd over the issue.

HS2 Ltd chairman Sir David Higgins told MPs that the procurement process for the £55.7 billion railway will now be more intrusive.

Giving evidence to the Commons' Transport Select Committee, he said: "We do intend to tighten it up following this exercise."

He went on: "In future we'll say 'you need to disclose to us who you intend to use on your tendering', so it will give us more of a chance to be able to scrutinise this ourselves."

Sir David claimed the publicity over the row means "there wouldn't be a contractor or an engineering firm in the UK now that won't be very focused on the issue".

He said HS2 Ltd became aware of the possible conflict of interest after a whistleblower informed Mace that former HS2 chief of staff Christopher Reynolds - who had taken a role with CH2M - did four days of work with CH2M's bid team for a £170 million contract to develop Phase 2b running from Crewe to Manchester, and Birmingham to Leeds.

"Christopher Reynolds should not have been involved in the bid," Sir David told the MPs.

Mark Thurston, HS2's new chief executive, is a former CH2M employee, as was his temporary predecessor Roy Hill.

A total of 25 HS2 staff have previously worked for CH2M, while 37 of the engineering company's employees are on secondment to HS2.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the hearing that HS2 Ltd made "appropriate inquiries" after being alerted to the possible conflict of interest.

"To be frank, they (CH2M) took a decision to step back from the contract before we took a decision that this compromised their position and they couldn't go any further with it," he said.

Asked if the controversy would delay the opening on P hase 2b, which is due in 2033, Mr Grayling replied: "I don't think it will. This is a matter of weeks rather than months.

"Stage 2b is a long project. I don't think this needs to impact on the time frame.

"I think we've moved quickly. If we'd discovered this in six months' time it might have been a different question."

Mace called for the bidding process to be re-run, but on Tuesday HS2 Ltd announced its intention to award the contract to Bechtel, which was deemed to have submitted the second strongest entry behind CH2M.

Sir David said it would take up to a year to repeat the competition.

Mr Grayling issued a plea for engineering firms not to "use the courts gratuitously".

The Transport Secretary went on: "If you have a legitimate grievance, come to us and we'll address it as we have in this case. But please do not use the court system without good grounds because ultimately that does no favours to any of us."

Phase 1 of HS2 between London and Birmingham is scheduled to open in December 2026, with a second Y-shaped phase launching in two stages.

Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe will open in 2027, followed by Phase 2b.

Legislation for Phase 1 passed its final hurdle in Parliament in January and construction work is set to begin in the coming weeks.