HS2 Fiasco: Should these two top Whitehall figures get the sack for covering it up?

Bernadette Kelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport Pic credit: gov.uk
Mark Thurston, the £605,000 a year head of HS2. Pic credit: HS2

The damning report by the Public Accounts Committee out today tells you everything you already knew about HS2 – the high speed rail link from Euston to Birmingham and eventually Manchester and Leeds.

This rail line – at one stage facing being scrapped by Boris Johnson – earned a reprieve despite costs escalating almost out of control from costing £55bn when it was commissioned to an estimated minimum £88 billion today. Even commitments to petitioners against the scheme were wrongly calculated at £245m when the figure is now nearer £1.2 billion .And that may not be the end of the story as costs could still rise while the public will get a much delayed service with fewer trains.

The report also shows there is a huge problem with the redevelopment of Euston station – used by millions of mainline travellers and commuters – which no doubt will create another out of control of budget. We still don’t know the real cost for that.

But what I found really distasteful that Bernadette Kelly, the highly paid permanent secretary at the Department for Transport and Mark Thurston, the UK’s highest paid public official in charge of HS2 – he is on an eyewatering £605,350 salary and got a £46,000 bonus despite not keeping public money under control- conspired to cover up their failings and keep information from the public and Parliament.

The report is quite clear desperate officials were well aware that public money was going down the toilet but decided NOT to tell Parliament and be less than honest in the official annual accounts of HS2 to disguise the mess they faced.

Bernadette Kelly revealed to MPs in March that she had undertaken four separate assessments to see if the project was viable last year – but neglected to tell MPs anything about it when she appeared before them. She claimed it was ” commercial sensitivities ” that held her back.

This is serious stuff. As the report says: ” We are disappointed by the Permanent Secretary’s response to our concerns about her failure to explicitly inform the Committee of the programme’s delays and overspend when asked about the general health of the project.

“This was something that an accounting officer should share with the Committee. Failure of an Accounting Officer to provide accurate information to Parliament is potentially a breach of the Civil Service Code and a breach of Parliamentary Privilege. “

To put it bluntly she may have broken the Civil Service code which lays down the ethics and rules governing how officials should behave and she may have lied to Parliament.

In that case I think there should be an inquiry and if she is found to have behaved as badly as that she should be disciplined or even sacked.

Mark Thurston appears to made sure that his company accounts did not give too many hints of the failure to control money. Why he should have a bonus when his costs went sky high – is a mystery to me. He should pay it back and questions asked whether he is the right man for the job..

I agree with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP and deputy chair of the committee: “This PAC report on HS2 is one of the most critical, in both the transparency of Government and the handling of a project, that I have seen in my nine years in total on the committee.

“The Permanent Secretary appeared before the committee in October 2018 and again in May 2019. In March 2019 HS2 Ltd formally told the Department it had breached the terms of the Development Agreement, and would be unable to deliver the programme to cost and schedule – yet the Permanent Secretary did not inform the committee on either appearance that the programme was in trouble.

“This is a serious breach of the department’s duty to Parliament and hence to the public, which as the report says, will undermine confidence. Furthermore, the PAC was in the dark about serious cost overruns and was therefore unable to do its duty to inform Parliament that value for money .on the project was at risk.”

The United Kingdom used to be regarded as a world leader in upholding high standards in public life. The actions of these two individuals in trying to cover their tracks is more in line with a banana republic.

Travelogue Kennedy Space Center: The billionaires’ space race to Mars

SpaceX building at Cape Canaveral

Imagine in 40 years time booking a 14 day holiday on Amazon Prime to hike the craters of the moon. Or a tourist  world voyage to Mars.

Visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a huge nature reserve on North  Merritt Island this year is not  just awesome  but at an extraordinary time in its history.The Florida site is not only where NASA does its top level research as well as showcasing its past achievements  it is now the place where the world’s richest men are competing with each other to launch into space.

 If you ever wondered where the huge profits of international capitalist companies are going, most of the money they have made is being spent here. They are gambling on a new lucrative tourist business that will be worth billions in the future. And they are changing the face of Cape Canaveral. Dotted among the state owned space facilities are brand new space centres owned by private individuals and companies each competing with each other to build rockets , space capsules and launch sites . The only one missing is billionare Richard Branson whose Virgin Galatic company is based elsewhere.

Thus you have Elon Musk, worth $37.7billion, and owner of Tesla electric cars ,with SpaceX, planning with his Falcon rocket to take US astronauts to the space station and then planning to go to the Moon and beyond. He is competing with the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, worth $125.3 billion and owner of Amazon whose Blue Origen company wants to go to the Moon. And you have Boeing with a base here who want to expand from building aircraft to spacecraft.

And what is also interesting is that the Space centre itself has the Journey to Mars centre where enthusiastic scientists are openly aiming to recruit the next generation to work on their space programme to “solve the impossible ” for the Mars mission.

The talk aimed at today’s ten year olds is premised that if you follow the history of the development of flight within 40 years what could be accomplished by a few pioneers will become commonplace for commercial services for tourists. Hence the interest in the commercialisation of space.

On the  cruise ship one of the most interesting lectures came from a NASA scientist who explained some of the pioneering work being done to aid the space project.Dr Lawrence Kutznetz showed that the breadth of research was spilling over into fields that could help the   disabled , aid medical research,and go the limits of technology.One worldwide research project involves designing a light weight spacesuit from scratch which will be essential if anyone wants to roam around Mars. Unlike the Moon Martian Gravity is similar to Earth’s and no human could walk more the few yards without collapsing under the weight of what they have to carry to stay alive. So using the Internet, peer reviewed research  is designing new materials, sealing the helmet from the rest of the body and allowing the rest of the suit to leak

Another project has very recently discovered by mistake that a particular drug when used on elderly mice caused cells covering its whole body to regenerate turning the equivalent of a 60 year old mouse to having the energy of an adolescent.

Scientists are not quite clear how this happened. The implications of this last experiment I can imagine will be very interesting for our wealthy billionaires funding the space programme – imagine being able to live until you are 150 – double the present lifespan.Or imagine Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch being offered a double lifespan.Perhaps not.

Other experiments have discovered that if you link two people’s brains using non evasive electrodes it is possible by thought alone to  operate another person’s artificial hand.

So not only is the space centre an exciting place to visit but some of the research going on there is in the realm of science fiction.

Saturn 5 rocket

Exclusive on Byline Times: Disappearing London voters as foreign buyers and new build AirBnBs flood neighbourhoods

110-112 Vauxhall Bridge Road; One of the AirBnBs block of apartments springing up in Westminster Pic credit: booking.com
The Surprise: This was the old pub that is now a new rebuilt AirBnb The original planning application was for it to be replaced by residential housing.

I have done a special investigation for Byline Times showing the extraordinary contrast between the decline of the electorate in Westminster and Kensington and the huge property and tourist boom bringing in non voting oligarchs, foreign buyers and purpose built blocks of AirBnBs.

This may have contributed to Labour winning Battersea and Kensington from the Conservatives at the last election. This time it is not so clear as Labour and the Lib Dems are vying for votes.

See my full story here.

Exclusive on Byline Times: New official “No Deal” advice means chaos and confusion for 1.3 million Brits living and driving in the EU and EEA countries

The EU British Driving Licence that will disappear. and no longer be valid in the EU and EEA.Pic credit: gov uk

Britain’s 43,000 citizens living in Holland will have to retake their driving test if they do not apply for a Dutch driving licence by 31 October, according to new No Deal Brexit advice from the Department of Transport.

In Spain any of the 300,000 British citizens who have not exchanged their licence by October 31 will have to pass a medical test to continue driving to get a new licence.

These are just two of a whole plethora of confusing and chaotic rules that will vary from country to country when the British driving licence is no longer recognised by the EU.  UK’s 1.3 million citizens living in the 27 countries will face different rules, time deadlines for applications and compulsory medical checks before they can drive again in some countries.

The full story is here.

 The full guidance -which has only just been published – is here. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/driving-in-the-eu-after-brexit-driving-licence-exchange

Warning the advice is being updated as more information on the new rules become available as the UK government doesn’t seem to have the full picture.

How Singapore shames London’s record on disabled mobility

Since taking this world trip I have gone out with my wife Margaret in a wheelchair in some 20 countries and encountered many challenges – from uneven and inaccessible pavements to stairs with no accompanying ramps, high kerbs, blocked paths and sudden inaccessible dead ends.

The visit to Singapore was a treat. It outstripped many European cities in the comprehensive services available to disabled people and the ease of getting around the country.

It sends a strong message to Transport for London on how to organise disabled friendly services across the capital. From travelling on the system it was clear a great deal of thought had been put in to make it as easy as possible for disabled people. Signage, positioning of lifts and the design of trains were all co-ordinated. So was access to the street to and from stations. It makes London just amateurish and years behind and pretty hostile to disabled people..

It was a lightening visit – just one day – it involved a visit to major attraction using the underground train system.

While This the cruise terminal was not directly connected to the metro the 250 yard walk from the terminal to the new station was well signposted. It’s served Marina South Pier where more local ferry services run. Getting access was easy . A wide ramp allowed wheelchair access to the station and lifts took you down to the booking hall and platform. The lift came out exactly opposite a carriage on the train which included wheelchair spaces.There was completely level access to the train with a minimal gap. We had to change lines at the next station Marina Bay. Again the system was easy to navigate.

Going out at Bayfront station was easy with lifts to the station entrance and a lift also well used by families with pushchairs to street level.

And then there was a bonus. We were going to the Gardens by the Bay one of Singapore’s newer iconic attractions. And round the corner was a shuttle bus to take you to the centre. But it was no ordinary shuttle bus. It included a ramp so wheelchairs could be hoisted on to the back to enable disabled people to travel in style. They were also testing a driverless vehicle.

Once there the two amazing attractions the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest were easily accessible.The Cloud Forest was particularly impressive with wheelchair accessible lift and always taking you hundreds of feet above the tree, hanging plants and huge waterfalls.The pictures tell the story.

Singapore’s system is copied by the metro in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It also has lifts to platforms and ramps into stations. Unfortunately at the two stations we used half the lifts did not work. And the access to the stations is not straightforward. More like London than Singapore.

Vietnam: The scooter boys in a booming Communist state with a widening wealth gap 

Imagine being dropped in the centre of a huge, unfamiliar vibrant place like Ho Chi Minh City without any local currency or understanding the language. The first thing you might do is look for an ATM to get some local cash. But there is not one in sight.

Then a friendly young guy on a motor scooter who speaks English suggests he can direct you to one which turns out to be round the corner.

You successfully get the money. Then he asks for payment. In the end You give equivalent of £3 and he goes away. As a tourist to the city this happened to me. I was politely fleeced.

The incident is symbolic of the current state of affairs in Vietnam. The loss of £3 was not a huge matter for me but it was a small fortune for him. It illustrates both the gulf between first world tourists and third world countries and the internal divide between the rich and poor in an emerging nation like Vietnam.

The young motor scooter rider is one of the enduring features of Ho Chi Minh City.There are thousands of them desperate and anxious for work and they dominate the roads and the pavements. Trying to negotiate a wheelchair along the pavements I found they were my main competitors for the few ramps that made the streets accessible. The traffic in the city is anarchic and you take your life in your hands to cross the road. Many of scooter riders use the ramps for the disabled to mount the pavement to avoid being held up by traffic lights.

They are at the bottom of a very large pile with shoe shine cleaners and people selling fans to tourists. At the top are wealthy entrepreneurs and property developers in the new Asain tiger.

And a visit to Ho Chi Minh city and a popular seaside resort Nha Trang confirms this. Both are booming with new tower block offices and apartments in the former Saigon and new multi storey hotels in the seaside town.

Ho Chi Minh City still has a number of its original French colonial buildings including the old post office, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an opera house that would not look out of place in Paris.But any idea that the writ of Macron runs here is out of the question. France has left an architectural legacy but not much else.

Instead it is the Japanese,Chinese, Americans and British ( in the shape of banks like HSBC and accountants like KPMG) that dominate the city alongside growing new Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

In Nha Trang a seaside resort that was a favourite relaxation destination for US troops during the Vietnam war it is US and Japanese hotels that are dominating the seafront with at least six new tower block hotels under construction when I visited.

After the American troops left it became a holiday destination for the Russians and Chinese. Now it is seeking a wider tourist market from Asia and even Europe. The resort is not just a cruise ship destination but a major tourist centre in its own right.

The present beautiful uncrowded beach could in future become as crowded as one on the Costa del Sol.

Small shacks with corrugated roofs are cheek by jowl with new luxury hotels in Nha Trang. And in Ho Chi Minh City huge swathes of modern apartments are going up in the city centre which are well beyond the reach of the average Vietnamese worker.

Communism comes in is over property ownership. The concept of private freehold property does not exist. Instead people buy a state licence to occupy the house or flat which can be revoked if the state requires the land for development. People are compensated for having to move and foreigners are restricted to a 50 year occupancy. Some, the guide suggested, get round this by getting a Vietnamese person to “own” it for them.

Most companies expect their staff to work a six day week . Japanese employers are rated the best as they offer staff a five day week.

Vietnam is a country in transition and is aping China. It is an inexpensive holiday destination if you ignore the poverty gap.

By the way the country plans to ban motor scooters from the Ho Chi Minh City by 2030 to combat smog. I wonder where they will go or whether they will succeed.

Murder at the laundrette: A Cunard experience not in the brochure 

Anybody on a world Cunard cruise cannot but be charmed  by the civilised behaviour of the crew and fellow guests. A day does not go by without any guest being encouraged to enjoy themselves by the large crew and fellow guests.Everybody is very considerate and helpful to each other. 

But there is one room in Queen Victoria where all this breaks down. It is called the laundrette. Here the genteel atmosphere throughout the ship evaporates in a mix of soap suds and wet clothes.

The laundrette is one of the few free services on board but there are only two or three machines for 100 or more cabins. And with 700 people going on a 108 day world cruise plus a turnover of some 1300 people at major ports demand is high.

To get a machine normally polite men and women are transformed into duplicitous schemers resorting to any ruse to get their hands on the machines.

When wiley women and aggressive men get going to grab a machine anything goes.

One person even came armed with two fake ” Out of Order ” notices to  attach to a washing machine and a dryer so she could get exclusive use during the voyage. The ruse was discovered when other suspicious guests tried using the machines and found they worked perfectly.

More direct action has involved taking other people’s clothes out of driers and washing machines when the guests using the machines are out of the laundrette.

One poor guest who had just loaded a washing machine and went out to get more dirty clothes came back five minutes later to find another guest had emptied her machine and replaced it with her clothes. By then she had started the machine and the first guest could do nothing about it.

As for men aggression can spill over. One man furious that another guy had taken out his washing turned to the other and said ” How dare you run your fingers through my wife’s knickers “. A fist fight broke out and it is said that Cunard threw both of them off the boat at the next port.

No wonder when you visit the Cunard laundrette you find a line of grim faced men and women guarding their machines with their lives and warning you there is a two hour wait before you need to come back.

So far the ethos of take no prisoners has not yet led to any deaths. But there is still another month on this voyage so anything could happen.

In the meantime nobody has copied the iconic Levi jeans advertisement where a  young guy goes to the laundrette to strip off and put all his  dirty clothes in the machines. But perhaps Cunard’s strict dress code of smart attire after 6.0 pm and a dinner jacket and cocktail dress on gala night puts off people from going to the laundrette in the nude. But again there is still time…

Australian Bush:The Invasion of the Giant Cane Toads

It could be science fiction.It has already been featured on games videos. But in the Australian Bush there’s an extraordinary real problem which is entirely self inflicted.

In the 1930s some bright person thought they had found an ecological way of dealing with a pest – a beetle – that was destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop. They decided to import the world’s large toad that had been introduced to Hawaii from Central America. The toads grow up to six inches long.

What the people who imported the toad did not know is that this large toad could not jump. And the beetles lived at the top of the sugar cane some 15 feet above the ground. So the toads were less than useless in combating the pest.

But their legacy has been a disaster. The toads secrete a poisonous fluid when attacked as their main defence mechanism. Toads are the natural food for many native reptiles and birds. They have no natural predators in Australia.

Worse the reptiles and birds that ate them were poisoned threatening the diversity of wildlife and forcing snakes and iguanas to the point of extinction in some areas. They also multiplied from a few hundred to an amazing 200 million and expanding their area from a small part of Queensland into the vast Northern Territories.

One area we visited was Litchfield National Park south of Darwin. This bush park is famous for its waterfalls and its giant termite mounds. Here the arrival of the cane toad has seen the disappearance of iguanas and some species of snake who ate the toads.

The guide who took us on the trip was devastated by the impact of the toads on other wildlife. And he was concerned about the spread of the toads which extend their range by about 25 miles every year.

Obviously it has not destroyed all wildlife in the park. Some specialised species like the olive python which feeds on bats are largely unaffected. And there is some hope that Australian wildlife hit by the toads may be able to adapt.

One snake has evolved to have a smaller jaw so it cannot swallow a giant toad. A bird under threat has found that if you turn the toad belly up it is possible to eat parts of it without being poisoned.

And the park’s meat eating ants have found they are immune from the poison. Normally they invade the huge termite mounds and kill the termites. Now they have found toads as another part of their diet.

The Australian cane toad has also adapted. It has grown longer legs so it can cover greater distances in this huge continent. Meanwhile scientists have unraveled the toad’s DNA in the hope of finding a way to try and eliminate them. This is an extraordinary story of a self inflicted problem that could be solved by evolution.

Report from Waitangi:Where Maori Aotearoa became New Zealand 

It is one of the most serene parts of New Zealand we saw in our short visit.Situated on the mainland of the beautiful Bay of Islands the Waitangi Treaty grounds is where in 1840 the Maori tribal leaders ceded sovereignty to the British.

The agreement has been disputed ever since through mistranslation. The Maoris thought they had ceded sovereignty, the British thought they had agreed that they would govern them and be able to take over their lands.Since Maoris had no written language it was an easy and useful mistake by the British.

The signing led to the seizure and purchase of the vast majority of Maori lands and like many of the people who inhabited the land in Australia and North America before the arrival of European settlers they became marginalised.

Since the 1940’s there has been a huge migration of Maoris from rural to urban areas. In 1926 84 percent of Maoris lived in rural settlements by 2006 it was down to 15 per cent. This added to marginalisation as many lost touch with their roots and some drifted into crime.

However since the 1970s there has been revival of Maori culture and nowhere does this show more than in Waitangi.The treaty grounds are run by a trust which receives no government money. Even the purchase of the land in the 1930’s depression relied on a well off white family rather than state aid. But the enthusiasm of the people who run the trust reflects the revival.

It was best illustrated by our Maori guide at Waitangi called John. He had a Maori name but that was too difficult to pronounce or remember for a European like me. He loved his job and spoke eloquently about Maori culture, traditions,language and history.

What came over is Maori fascination with ancestry. He could trace his own back 15 Maori generations and discovered in the process he was part Scottish and one per cent Native American.

The role of tattoos in Maori culture is also fascinating.John had got married and instead of exchanging rings with his bride he had a tattoo on his chest to celebrate his marriage. Marriage must be forever for Maoris.

The treaty grounds include the house where the treaty was signed, a Maori meeting house and a replica of a 150 man war canoe, a museum and a woodcarving centre where the

ancient Maori craft has been revived.

Princess Diana stirred up controversy on a Royal visit to Waitangi when she became the only woman to sit in the canoe breaking the sacred Maori rule that only men can sit in war canoes. But she was never one to follow tradition.

It also has a flagstaff with three flags,one created after the crew of trading boat were jailed in Australia for trading without a flag,the Union Jack, and the modern New Zealand flag.

The Treaty House is no grand building for such a momentous event. It is just a small homestead which later had an extension added. The room where the treaty was signed is simply furnished with bare boards and a wooden table.

For anyone visiting New Zealand this is well worth the trip.Allow a full three hours to include a display of Maori dancing.