MPs have promised to scrutinise close links between staff at the High Speed 2 project and contractor CH2M Hill, as the scale of the groups’ ties are revealed.
US engineering business CH2M last week pulled out of a £170m contract it had been awarded by HS2 to design the next stage of the £56bn project amid allegations of cronyism and the threat of legal action.
Worries about CH2M executives taking top jobs at HS2 and a “revolving door” between it and the engineering group have prompted concern over how work was awarded.
CH2M has almost 100 staff located in HS2 offices, and seconded 40 of its employees to the rail project, while 25 HS2 staff have previously worked for CH2M. Controversial hirings include HS2 chief executive Mark Thurston, who quit his job as the engineering firm’s European boss in January to take the £600,000 a year role, making him the second-highest paid civil servant.
He took over from CH2M executive Roy Hill, who was appointed as interim chief executive of HS2 on £60,000 a month after Simon Kirby departed for Rolls-Royce in September following two years at the controls.
The traffic was not all one-way. Former HS2 chief of staff Christopher Reynolds took a top role with CH2M, causing further concern.
The moves came as bidding was taking place for the £170m Phase 2B deal to design the line from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, which CH2M won in February. The engineer has already been involved in contracts worth £450m for earlier work.
Rival bidder Mace was so concerned about the exchange of staff that it threatened a judicial review to look into how CH2M won the deal. Further questions were raised as David Prout, director general of HS2, quit last week for a job at Oxford University.
One source close to CH2M described the atmosphere inside the company as being “win HS2 at all costs” after several disappointing quarters.
Louise Ellman, chairman of the transport select committee, said: “Given the scale of HS2 and the amount of money involved, we are keen to understand the reasons behind the latest developments. I will be suggesting to members we hold a session as soon as possible. It is important that business, industry and public have confidence in the processes involved.”
Meg Hillier, chairman of the public accounts committee, said the “sheer size” of HS2 means it is under “continuous” scrutiny from the watchdog she heads, which looks at public spending.
Anti-corruption campaigners have also taken an interest. “There needs to be proper controls, accountability and transparency, not just in HS2, but throughout the public sector,” said Transparency International director Robert Barrington.
CH2M called staff hopping between employers on major projects as “commonplace”, adding what it called an “integrated model … helps drive efficiencies across the design and construction. Any movement of executives from one organisation to the other has followed the correct protocols.”
A spokesman for HS2 said it “had not been notified of potential select committee hearings, but our chairman David Higgins is happy to appear”.