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HS2 grilling gives Grayling his legally blonde moment

How do you make a drama out of a crisis? 

It is a question that many in the higher echelons of HS2 and the Department for Transport may want to ponder this evening after their respective leaders faced a public grilling by MPs over the CH2M saga. 

Both transport secretary Chris Grayling and HS2 boss Sir David Higgins had to face the transport select committee at Portcullis House today, which was headed up by Labour MP Ms Louise Ellman, over the role both public bodies played in the awarding of the £170m deliver partner role for phase 2b of the mammoth railway project.

However, apart from covering the issues within the tender, which have been reported here, the session highlighted the attitude at both the DfT and HS2 over how contracts are awarded.

HS2 has remained steadfast in its refusal to re-tender the £170m contract.

However, while covering the committee session, the most pertinent comment of the afternoon was Mr Grayling’s obscure mention of the value of infrastructure contracts that the government holds – as well as the opportunities that there are with HS2 – after a direct question regarding whether the current procurement process for the phase 2b delivery partner could be open to a legal challenge.

Mr Grayling said: “There is a huge amount of business to be won with HS2. There is a huge amount of investment taking place in infrastructure in this country, there is a real commercial opportunity for any serious project management organisation which is involved in infrastructure.

“Sometimes they will win, and sometimes they will not win. Each will learn lessons when they are not successful and apply those lessons to future tenders. We need as a nation need to get on with the job.

“My message to any contractor working with government is, if you have a legitimate grievance, come to us and we will 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.”

No firm was mentioned by Mr Grayling, but many at Mace would have taken note of the transport secretary’s comments.

As Construction News also revealed today, Mace has been vocal in putting over their misgivings over the tendering process for the phase 2b delivery partner role at HS2.

In written evidence to the select committee seen by CN, the firm accuses HS2 of “misleading taxpayers and the press” over the client’s claim that the procurement of phase two’s development partner contract was “robust and fair”.

To state the obvious, legal action is always ‘unhelpful’ to at least one party, that is the nature of legal action.

However, despite best intentions, contract disputes happen. This is a fact of life both in the construction sector as it is across almost any other sector.

After all, it was Mr Grayling’s own department, albeit before he took charge as minister, which became embroiled in a legal row with train operator Virgin Trains in 2012 over the award of another public contract – the award of the London to Scotland West Coast Mainline. 

The perception of an ’anyone but Branson’ attitude at the DfT led to the multi-billion-pound bidding process (which was initially won by First Group) being scrapped. At a cost of £40m to the taxpayer.

Let’s hope that when it comes to HS2’s procurement – or any public procurement process for that matter – anyone, whether they be unidentified whistleblowers or rival firms, can feel confident that questions can be raised without fear of consequences, no matter how frustrating those questions may be for the parties concerned.

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