pounds 120m paid for advice on shelved rail project

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Indy Politics
A Westminster lobbying firm is among a group of consultants to have received more than pounds 120m in taxpayers' money to advise on a government project that may now never go ahead.

Labour is demanding an investigation by the Commons Public Accounts Committee into the hiring of consultants for the Crossrail project, linking London's Paddington and Liverpool Street stations.

In all, pounds 124m was spent on 83 firms and individuals to advise on a scheme that has been shelved. This is one of the largest sums spent by a public body on external advisers for any project, and almost certainly the biggest amount on consultancy advice for plans that look as though they will never come to fruition. Opposition anger has been further fuelled by the disclosure that one of the consultants was not a design, engineering or architect practice, but Ian Greer Associates, a Westminster lobbying firm.

Advice on the Railtrack privatisation, by contrast, cost pounds 42m and for selling British Coal, pounds 34m. The Crossrail bill comes after ministers last year railed against the spiralling Whitehall consultancy bill and promised a clampdown.

Work on Crossrail, joining the east and west mainline stations, will not start for seven years at the earliest, Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, announced recently.

Sir George has indicated the pounds 2.6bn railway may be abandoned for good later this year. London Transport, British Rail and Railtrack had hoped to start the parliamentary process to enable the construction of the line later this year, but Sir George ordered the three organisations not to proceed with plans "for the time being".

In a letter to Glenda Jackson Labour's spokeswoman on London transport, and passed to the Independent, Peter Ford, chairman of London Transport, confirmed that up to 31 March, pounds 150m of public money had been spent on the shelved scheme. Of that figure, all but pounds 26m had gone on consultants, "external to the project team".

Of the firms and individuals who received the cash, most were designers and architects, but the list also included Ian Greer Associates and Charles Barker, a public relations company. The consultancy costs average out at almost pounds 1.5m per consultant - or more than 80 per cent of the total cost of the scheme.

Ministers refused to give details of the costs, claiming they were "a matter for London Underground". Ms Jackson said London Transport claimed that the costs were a matter for the Crossrail Project Team, while a Crossrail spokesman maintained the cost to individual contractors could not be provided on grounds of commercial confidentiality. She said that when asked for the total costs and names of contractors, the Crossrail spokesman claimed the information was "too complicated to find".

In his letter to Ms Jackson, the London Transport chairman said: "I apologise for the delay in replying, only I have had to check the matter carefully in order to see what information we should release." Ian Greer Associates is believed to have been advising London Transport on expected resistance at Westminster to its plans. The lobbying firm has aroused controversy in the past because of its close association with the Conservatives and current and former members of the Government.

Ms Jackson said it was "bad enough that pounds 150m of taxpayers' money has been squandered on a project that has not even made it past the drawing board. But what is worse is that over 80 per cent of those costs have been spent on consultants, at least one of whom has close links to the Conservative Party".

A London Transport spokesman said he could not speak about individual contracts. However, he said that "Ian Greer has provided us with a straightforward parliamentary monitoring service." The money had been "spent wisely and prudently. We got the best value for it", he said. Whether or not Crossrail went ahead was "a matter for the Government and Railtrack".