Sir David Higgins’ ‘no nonsense’ approach to organisational change and delivery of major projects has been praised by contractors, which have welcomed his appointment as chairman of High Speed 2.
The outgoing Network Rail chief executive will replace Doug Oakervee in January, taking up the post full-time from March.
Sir David told Construction News he would look to work with contractors on HS2 in similar ways to those he has introduced at Network Rail.
“I would say to rail contractors and the rail design industry: look at what we’ve sought to do in the last two to three years,” he said.
“We’ve sought to open our organisation up to be less prescriptive on the designs and to engage them much earlier in the design stage.”
He pointed to Network Rail’s work through “big alliances” in Stafford and the East Midlands under “a whole new model”, and highlighted the project completed at
Hitchin using a joint venture delivery team as an effective model to capitalise on expertise and innovation from the private sector.
He said: “It’s the way I’ve been used to, because my background was in construction and heavy infrastructure in the private sector, so I think I have some idea of what the private sector can do. I’m all for early engagement.”
As chief executive of Network Rail, and before that Olympic Delivery Authority chief executive, Sir David has proven experience of leading large projects against a sometimes highly charged political backdrop.
His appointment comes after several weeks during which the value of HS2 has been questioned by a number of prominent Labour politicians, including shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former chancellor and co-architect of the project Alistair Darling.
Sir David said he was not concerned by the political questions raised over HS2. “[Labour] are saying what anyone would say - that we’ve got to be responsible about the budget. This isn’t a blank cheque,” he said.
“We didn’t have a blank cheque for the Olympics and after we went through the approval of the budget we committed to producing a very detailed document which could then be held accountable to parliament every six months.
“I’d come back regularly to explain what progress had been made with the £9.3bn that we got.”
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has admitted to Construction News that it is “still important” to get a cross-party consensus for the £42.7bn HS2 scheme.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls has been reported to be interested in examining alternative ways to spend £50bn on infrastructure projects, should Labour come to power after the next general election in 2015.
Mr McLoughlin said: “The plan I’ve got at the moment for the first phase was actually the plan of the previous government – [former transport secretary] Andrew Adonis introduced it.”
The Conservative Party went back on the offensive on HS2 this week at its party conference in Manchester, where the transport secretary insisted that a “new north-south line” was needed to “make our country stronger” and that “we will build it carefully and we will build it right”.
Planning minister Nick Boles told a housing fringe event that “HS2 was vital to allowing people to live outside of the South-east”.
Skanska UK president and chief executive Mike Putnam said Sir David’s experience and style would stand him in good stead.
“Look at the political wobbles and public perception: Sir David will be good for that - he is good at articulating the right messages,” he said.”What I like is that he is a straight-talker and takes a no-nonsense approach.
“Look at Network Rail: he is good at moving an organisation rapidly forward to a different way of working. On Crossrail and in Network Rail there is a focus on early involvement right the way through the supply chain and on finding collaborative solutions.”
WSP UK head of infrastructure Duncan Symonds said Sir David had “an outstanding track record” of delivering and that the government’s promise to publish a new cost-benefit analysis of the scheme later this year, as well as the hybrid bill for the scheme before parliament, meant January was a “good time” for the former ODA chief to start work.
Mr Symonds pointed to the work being done at the London Bridge station revamp under a collaborative model, where WSP is part of the team, as an example of the “magic” of alliancing models he hoped to see recreated on HS2.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin told Construction News Sir David’s rail knowledge would benefit HS2.
“Having been involved in the present rail industry and our Victorian rail structure, he is able to bring all of that to the front of HS2,” he said.
Doug Oakervee said HS2 was “vital to the growth of the UK economy” and that Sir David was “the right man to continue the delivery of this project”.
Sir David will work for HS2 for one day per week in January and February while still completing the handover for Network Rail, during which he will be entitled to a daily rate of £950 for HS2 work.
On 1 March he will go full-time for six months, where he will be paid the equivalent of £591,000 per annum, before reverting to a three-day week in September on a £240,000 annual salary.
Former Shell executive vice-president Mark Carne will replace Sir David as Network Rail chief executive. Outgoing HS2 chairman Doug Oakervee will remain in post to oversee the introduction of the government’s hybrid bill before the end of this year.