The Government’s planned high-speed rail link between London and Manchester has continued its descent into chaos as Douglas Oakervee, the veteran chairman of the £42.6bn railway project, has been forced to take three months off with a torn calf muscle.
Mr Oakervee’s leadership and experience is considered crucial at what is now a key juncture for the project, which would cut journey times from London to Birmingham to just 49 minutes.
By the end of the year, HS2 Ltd, the advisory body set up by the Department for Transport to oversee the railway, must introduce to Parliament a “hybrid” Bill that weighs a quarter of a ton, the biggest of its type in legislative history.
Mr Oakervee, 72, was selected to chair the body because he successfully steered the hybrid Bill for London’s Crossrail project through Parliament under the last Labour government.
However, he will now be absent in the months leading up to the time the Bill is deposited, possibly in late November, The Independent has learnt.
Sources close to the project said the former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers would be recuperating for three months, while an HS2 insider insisted that he would simply be “seen around the office less often”.
“‘Captain Invisible’ gets even more time hiding in his garden,” said one industry source, referring to a nickname given to Mr Oakervee by one of his critics.
Mr Oakervee has been accused of rarely publicly defending HS2 since its cost spiralled by around £10bn earlier this summer. This led to a wave of attacks on the proposal, including a former supporter and Chancellor Alistair Darling declaring himself to have become an “HS2 sceptic”.
Some industry sources said there was anger that Mr Oakervee had left HS2 chief executive Alison Munro, a career civil servant with little training in dealing with the media, to defend the project on the BBC’s Today programme over the summer.
However, in an interview with The Independent on Sunday last weekend, Mr Oakervee pointed out that he had been on holiday in Hong Kong at the time and that it would be “catastrophic” for the country if the project was ditched.
The leadership vacuum also comes at a time when the Government and HS2’s supporters are launching a vigorous fight-back against the well-organised network of campaign groups opposing the railway.
Last week, both David Cameron and the Chancellor, George Osborne, spoke at length of how HS2 would benefit the British economy, claiming that it would create at least 100,000 jobs.
The Department for Transport has also tried to publicly dispel some of the “myths” surrounding the project, such as the Institute of Directors’ claim that once the second phase, which takes the railway in a Y-shaped route to Manchester and Leeds, is completed, the total bill could reach £80bn.
Today, as part of the fight-back, KPMG publishes a report that shows HS2 could benefit the economy by £15bn a year and that the regions rather than London would be the big winners, countering criticisms made by the powerful Public Accounts Committee earlier this week.
In a letter to the Prime Minister published this morning, the Director-General of the British Chamber of Commerce, John Longworth, urged the Government to continue backing HS2.
He said: “Construction of HS2 … will help Britain’s economic performance move from good to great. It is the best sort of radical infrastructure investment.”