HS2 silences hundreds of contractors with gagging orders

HS2 image

Gagging orders have been signed by almost 300 contractors, consultants and local authorities involved in HS2.

The number of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) used by the high-speed line has increased sharply as major work on the project finally gets under way, it was revealed yesterday.

HS2 Ltd, the government-owned company behind the project, said the agreements were needed to protect commercial information and the data of people affected by the scheme. The big increase in the agreements coincides with the move to push ahead with the development of the second phase of HS2 between Birmingham and the north of England, it added.

It was also revealed yesterday that a decision over which company will operate HS2’s trains has been delayed. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, had said the contract would be awarded in June but the Department for Transport said yesterday that the deal would be announced by September.

The line is expected to carry passengers between London and Birmingham by 2026 before the full Y-shaped network is completed to Manchester and Leeds in 2033. Its trains should reach speeds of up to 250mph, cutting journey times between cities and boosting capacity on the rail network.

It was revealed last month that Mr Grayling had asked Allan Cook, HS2 Ltd’s chairman, to review costs and ensure the project could be delivered. About £5.5 billion has already been spent — a tenth of the total budget — including buying 900 properties along the route and creating about 9,000 jobs.

Figures obtained by New Civil Engineer magazine shows that HS2 Ltd’s use of NDAs had soared. It found that 280 agreements had been signed by external parties by March this year. Of those, 40 per cent had been signed in 2018 alone. Many were signed by contractors working with HS2 Ltd. However, it emerged last year that 28 councils along the route had also signed orders, including Warwickshire, Staffordshire and North Yorkshire.

Critics of NDAs say that they are increasingly used by the public and private sectors to cover up indiscretions. Last year The Timesrevealed that the government had forced 400 NDAs on charities and companies since 2015, banning them from publicly criticising ministers or Whitehall departments.

Hugh Ellis, of the Town and Country Planning Association, told New Civil Engineer: “What HS2 is doing is sending a message to the public that they should be excluded from what is going on in their own back yards . . . It is basic breach of trust and fuels even greater suspicion and resentment, which ultimately makes it much harder to have a sensible debate about our future infrastructure needs.’’

An HS2 spokesman said: “We regularly engage with local authorities and share work at an early design stage with them. Non-disclosure agreements during the planning phase help to avoid placing homes and businesses in unnecessary blight, protect commercially sensitive information, and protect the personal information of those potentially affected by any proposals.”