Phillip Hammond, the new Secretary of State for Transport was whisked to Kings Cross in his first few days in the job to ‘open’ the new Platform Zero on 20 May. Platform Zero and the Eastern Range offices have become infamous in the area for gross overspending and have featured in the trade press.
The briefing released by DfT and Network Rail apparently provided for the Secretary of State is a hymn of praise for the Kings Cross project and doesn’t mention at all Network Rail's overspending. Even though arguably the greatest challenge for the new Transport Secretary and his officials is to bring Network Rails’ expenditure under control.
Also apparently whitewashed out is the long, principled and hard fought community campaign opposed to the way Network Rail chose to develop Platform Zero and their own offices – in particular the loss without replacement of a historic access route for pedestrians, prams, wheelchairs etc into the North of the station forcing a huge detour round the outside of the station.
Tipped off by the construction trade press, 'Kings Cross job doubles its costs' a campaign by this website forced DfT to reveal that Network Rail had overspent by tens of millions on the rebuilding of their own offices and Platform Zero. I also notice that the Kings Cross budget, that used to be hazily stated as £400million has now risen to 'Network Rail's £500m King's Cross redevelopment'. But I am told by DfT that we can't know the precise number lest it reduces Network Rail's leverage with its contractors.
I thought it was odd that the Secretary of State’s first rail ‘visit’ was to a project notorious for over spend – normally you would send a minister to something unambiguously good for their first trip out of the office.
Local activists weren’t invited to the launch we were told there ‘wasn’t enough room’ – on a train platform over 100 metres long – although we were invited to all the Eurostar festivities despite a long running campaign and behaved ourselves. Smelling a rat, I put in an FOI request for the Secretary of State’s briefing to see what was being said about the overspend on the development and the community campaign. Why would a new Secretary of State agree to his first rail bit of PR be endorsing and overspent project unpopular with the community?
The documents released under FOI – appear to be the entire briefing supplied by DfT and Network Rail officials to the Secretary of State – DfT does not say that any documents were withheld under FOI exemptions.
Briefing on an event is intended to give a Minister the full picture warts and all so that they can decide whether to go or not and to inform them of any pitfalls – policy or reputational. The briefing documents DfT have released omit to mention overspend and also omit the strong grass roots campaigns against the development. This is particularly poor given the new government’s emphasis on spending control and the big society – citizens in control of their neighbourhood.
We know that DfT officials involved in station refurbishment programmes are painfully aware of the issues around Platform Zero and the Eastern Range – because they have agonised in pulling together FOI requests setting it out, which I appealed for internal review at senior level.
My sources tell me that Network Rail still gets hot under the collar when the Kings Cross affair is mentioned – they certainly haven’t forgotten the fiasco that their lack of community engagement caused.
I don’t have a bone to pick with Philip Hammond but there is something strange in how his officials and Network Rail apparently don't mention in his briefing the severe financial overspend and community unhappiness about the Eastern Range and Platform Zero. Instead they send him there to endorse the project.
So I am sending a copy of this article to Robert Devereux, the Permanent Secretary at DfT, who is in charge of the officials for his comments. If anyone else involved in the project has any further documents or information I'd be happy to publish them here.