The meaning of words

The Property & Compensation Consultation, part 9

“Where a project that is in the national interest imposes significant financial loss on individuals, it is right and proper that they should be compensated fairly for that loss …”

These words were uttered in December 2010 from the despatch box in the House of Commons by the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, when he was Secretary of State for Transport. It was part of a statement on the Government’s plans for the development of a national high-speed rail network, which was reported in Hansard for 20th Dec 2010; the quote may be found in Column 1203.

When called upon to reply to the Shadow Transport Secretary’s response to his statement, Mr Hammond provided further elaboration (reported in Column 1207):

“I have indicated that we will seek to go further than has happened with previous such infrastructure schemes in the UK, because it is right and proper that individuals who suffer serious financial loss in the national interest should be compensated.”

And:

“… developing European jurisprudence in the area of property rights and the need for Governments to compensate is pointing towards more generous compensation becoming the norm, and I suspect that that will be the case for future projects.”

These comments appeared, at the time, to be reassuring, but events during the past two years have shown that any optimism regarding the compensation arrangements for HS2 is unfounded. The publishing of the document High Speed Two: Property and Compensation for London –West Midlands, setting out the proposed compensation package for public consultation, has finally shattered any hopes that “generosity” was really in the Government’s mind. According to the Prime Minister (Hansard 28th November 2012, Column 219), the HS2 compensation proposals are “are as good as the scheme for HS1” – so much for “more generous compensation becoming the norm”.

Now, at the time, Mr Hammond may well have intended for something better to be offered, but he was careful in his choice of words; terms such as “significant financial loss” and “compensated fairly” offer considerable scope for interpretation. Indeed, we were treated to a classic exposition on the interpretation of words by Tim Mould QC, counsel for the Secretary of State, on day 9 of the HS2 judicial review (page 29, lines 3-23 in the transcript):

“[The Secretary of State] would form a judgment as to whether that which he settled upon drew the balance fairly between seeking to alleviate the effects of blight and other factors such as cost, risk and other things that might suggest he should limit the reach of the proposal.

“I put it that way because it’s clearly in contradistinction to full compensation. Your Lordship will recall that under the statutory compensation regime, as the courts have consistently emphasised, the function of statutory compensation provisions is to provide fair compensation: it’s not and does not seek to provide full compensation.

“Now, what the Secretary of State is doing here is effectively saying: at present those who are outwith the statutory compensation regime are not entitled to any compensation. My view is that they should be entitled to some compensation, but the yardstick should be that which applies generally to the statutory provisions; that’s to say fair compensation but not full compensation.”

Put in plain English, what the learned counsel is saying is that paying full compensation might be fair for the affected property owner, but it would place an unfair burden on the taxpayer. The balance of fairness for both these parties therefore lies in paying compensation at a level that does not fully compensate the property owner.

Speaking personally, I prefer the view expressed by Hilary Wharf, Director of HS2 Action Alliance, in a press release issued by that organisation:

“If the Government can’t afford fair compensation – it can’t afford HS2.”

In the next blog I will start to examine the compensation proposals that the Government has issued for public consultation.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on January 13, 2013 at 10:16 am

    the key words of ambiguity were: this will be the case for future projects

    is interpreted but not for this one.

    the key action is moving the SOS away from the statement.

    The new suggestion from HS2 on Friday was for the affected party and the tax payer not demonstrating the taxpayer is asking for the project as conceived not to proceed. That large cost of the project being ignored.

    Reply

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