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HS2 chief: 'This is about British jobs'

High Speed 2 chief Simon Kirby has insisted the £43bn project remains “about British jobs” in an exclusive interview with NCE after major civils contracts on the scheme were announced in China last week.

Kirby, chief executive at project promoter HS2 Ltd, said chancellor George Osborne was always scheduled to launch the £11.8bn civils procurement process last week.

Osborne’s announcement while on a visit to the Far East – alongside a plea for investment in developments related to HS2 – caused some dissatisfaction from UK contractors.

Association for Consultancy and Engineering chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin warned that the chancellor’s “rush to secure foreign investment” risked “undermining the ability of UK firms to benefit from the work”.

But Kirby told NCE no Chinese money was being sought to build HS2, and implied that it would be hard for firms to win major contracts on the scheme without employing Brits.

“This is about skills and jobs in this country,” he said.

“We are looking for a supply chain that a contractor can convince us is reliable and innovative. It’s down to the market to decide whether they can do it from outside the UK. Our criteria will be very much focused on British jobs here.

“Cost is also in there as a requirement and clearly an encumbent supply chain will deliver better value for money than one where everybody is on an ex-pat package.”

He added of the decision to announce the contracts in China: “I would not draw a direct link. The chancellor was in China for a week. We always had a date to hit. He did not fly to China to announce our contracts.”

Seven contracts for the surface route and tunnels on the phase one route from London to Birmingham were formally advertised last week, with invitations to tender expected next spring.

NCE has previously reported that European giants such as FCC, Dragados and Ferrovial are looking to link with British contractors including Laing O’Rourke, Kier and Morgan Sindall to compete for the big civils packages on HS2.

Kirby said such link-ups were what he was hoping for on the project.

“We have some fantastic capability in this country, some great skills and this is a great opportunity,” he said. “However we have not built a greenfield railway of this scale for about 120 years.

“Internationally, there are a number of big organisations who have been really successful in high speed rail. We are encouraging relationships between organisations that have delivered on this scale and UK suppliers.”

Kirby said quality was the focus of the first stage of procurement.

“This is driven by a mix of qualitative measures on safety, skills, ethics, application and innovative ideas; and cost,” he said. “On the first stage it is more biased towards skills and capability. The second stage will ultimately focus on a target cost.”

Treatment of employees will be a major factor in the selection of civils firms on HS2.

“We are looking for breadth – not just someone who can build a railway at low cost,” said Kirby. “We are looking for a very strong safety culture and an organisation that will share our values. We will not tolerate companies that have poor standards of ethics.

“The construction industry has a long way to go in areas such as diversity and we are looking to push the bar substantially higher on this programme. We are looking for organisations that share that value.”

He said that although some £3bn of work north of Birmingham – in what is being dubbed phase 2a – may go to the bidders who successfully pre-qualify for phase 1 work, this would not happen in the spring.

“It won’t happen alongside the phase 1 invitations to tender, as it requires another hybrid bill,” said Kirby, formerly Network Rail managing director of infrastructure.

Meanwhile the remaining work needed to complete phase 2 – including branches to Manchester and Leeds – will “almost inevitably” require a new procurement process entirely, he said.

Discussions over how the four station construction contracts will be awarded are ongoing.

“Procurement will be launched some time next year, but each station is different,” said Kirby. “Curzon Street is city centre, Birmingham interchange is greenfield, Old Oak Common is brownfield and Euston is an operating station. The procurement solutions may well be different for each one.”

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