HS2 deputy takes chair role after two-year search

After more than two years of searching for a chair of HS2, the government has promoted the existing deputy chair to the role.

Civil Service veteran Sir Jon Thompson, had long been tipped as a frontrunner for the position on the rail megaproject, which was vacated by former chair Allan Cook in February 2021.

Thompson, a former permanent secretary at both the Ministry of Defence and HM Revenue and Customs, joined the HS2 board in April 2021. In March last year, he became deputy chair with responsibility to chair the board until a permanent replacement for Cook was found.

This coincided with the Department for Transport relaunching its recruitment effort, more than a year after Cook handed in his notice. The criteria were widened to appeal to leaders in sectors outside of construction and engineering. Construction News revealed at the time that the department was considering five candidates, after 29 people submitted applications.

Thompson is stepping down from his role as chief executive of audit watchdog the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). His appointment at HS2 takes effect immediately, but during his six-month notice period he will also serve as part-time CEO of the FRC.

Since Cook’s departure, concerns have been raised about the impact of HS2’s vacant chair on its prospects. In 2021, the government scrapped the planned Eastern leg of HS2 between Birmingham and Leeds, and this week there have been reports that further large parts of the project could be scrapped, delayed or redesigned to save costs.

Commenting on the appointment, transport secretary Mark Harper said he had no doubt Thompson “will be successful in delivering our shared goals of increasing capacity on our rail network, levelling up our country and driving economic growth for generations to come”.

Thompson said: “During my time on the board, this monumental project has already achieved some incredible milestones and I’ve seen first-hand how it will transform not only journeys, but the lives of people across the country.

“I look forward to working with our first-class stakeholders and partners in my new role, to ensure this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity fulfils its pioneering potential.”

Elaine Holt, a current non-executive director of HS2, will take on the role of deputy chair. She has been a non-executive director of Highways England/National Highways since 2015 and previously held a number of senior roles in the rail industry.

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