Breakfast with the interesting Mr Brooks Wilson

As we revealed a few days ago, the estates director of Imperial College, Mr David Brooks Wilson, is an unsung architect of the Wye Concordat, a man of countless connections and talents who is working tirelessly on its behalf.

Only now, though, is it becoming clear how fortunate the area is to have a figure of his stature slaving away to turn grass to concrete. He has had many, many other irons in the fire, as this small anecdote proves.

Back in May 2002, a month after he was appointed to the job at Imperial, Mr Brooks Wilson made an appearance at London’s former county hall, introducing a ‘business breakfast debate’ as a non-executive of Dalkia, the French-owned utilities and electricity company. The subject was: ‘Is Outsourcing a Safe Bet in the Rail Industry?’, and you can find a transcript of the event at the foot of this article.

One of the purposes of the meeting, said Mr Brooks Wilson, was to demonstrate ‘that it is possible to strike a balance between innovation and risk management’ in the use of outsourcing companies to provide services for train operators. He had quite an audience: Steven Norris, the onetime Tory politician and would-be mayor of London; people from the BBC; and the boss of Dalkia himself.

And, as Mr Brooks Wilson proudly pointed out, Dalkia already had a foothold with one existing train operator of the time for whom ‘we were able to provide a quality service with appropriate Health and Safety procedures, that coupled with an (sic) holistic approach to property and services management… enabled them to fulfil the requirements of their franchise and… save about 20 per cent on their current costs.’

Who was this lucky customer? Oh come on. If you’re a regular on the Wye trains — is such a concept really possible? — you know already. Yes, none other than Connex, the transport company that made British Rail look like the Tokyo to Osaka bullet train.

This speech is full of classics. How about this from the frank and bubbly Mr BW? ‘It is probably axiomatic that accidents will occur on the railways. There is a risk that high profile accidents will set back the very beneficial trends that outsourcing those services which are essential to the safe and efficient running of train services (brings).’

The dreaded Connex South East

The golden age of train travel… not. Connex South East. Photo: Phil Scott

But outsourcing, Dalkia-style, would release ‘much needed funding to invest in further investment in improvements for rail passengers.’ Really? Another speaker was the then boss of Connex, Olivier Brousse, who described the train company as ‘probably among the best known brands in transport in the UK’, though he conceded the company had experienced tough times, with much consumer dissatisfaction and the loss of the south central franchise. Nevertheless, with the help of outsourcers like Mr Brooks Wilson’s Dalkia, progress lay ahead. ‘…this will be long and difficult and for that we reallly need to concentrate on what we know how to do, what the others can do on our behalf and leave the rest to the others. We have suffered so much that we can deliver a steady and sustainable change, relatively quickly and wait for investment to come ultimately to deliver a railway we can all be proud of.’

Well… not quite. Thirteen months later, after running the south eastern franchise for seven years, Connex were called to the headquarters of the Strategic Rail Authority and told their franchise was terminated. You can find a detailed account on the excellent CSE News site. As their report says…

The SRA had become concerned about the quality of Connex’s management. Towards the end of 2002 Connex requested an extra £58 million of funding — on top of the £55 million subsidy for that year. The SRA paid up but cut the franchise by 5 years. However, Richard Bowker has said that the figures Connex produced were not credible. PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm, was brought in by the SRA to review Connex’s controls.

Mr Bowker said: ‘We made it an absolutely explicit requirement that the money cannot be moved outside the operating company, that there can be no leakage of funds whatsoever.’

‘We had a very detailed audit carried out by consultant auditors. It became clear that many of the things that we were concerned about had not been addressed and we reached the point recently when we said: “Enough’s enough, you have not met the requirements of this agreement in December last year and we have lost confidence in your ability to sort this out to our satisfaction”.

‘The subsidy is taxpayers’ money. It is very, very important. We have a duty here under the Transport Act to be satisfied that public money is being properly and effectively accounted for and managed, and we had real doubts and real concerns.’

Happily, the highly unusual act of stripping a public train company of its franchise has not affected the firm’s customer Dalkia, which still prospers merrily. Mr Brooks Wilson, too, continues to be listed as a non executive director in the latest annual report, in spite of his many other interests. Connex is busily running transport franchises elsewhere in the world; Mr Brousse now heads its US outpost.

This must be pleasant news indeed for the French water group Veolia Environnement, formerly Vivendi Environment, since it just happens to be the parent company of both. It’s a small world indeed, for some anyway.

We would be intrigued to learn whether Mr Brooks Wilson, when he visits his sizable interests in the Ashford area, travels by train.

Mr Brooks Wilson at breakfast

*Apologies to subscribers who may have received notification of this article twice. We had a slight glitch with our system which meant this article briefly unpublished itself this afternoon, and then announced its presence twice over. This happened the other day too. We hope to avoid a repeat of the problem.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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