SEA views, part 4

(… continued from SEA views, part 3, posted on 16 Jun 2014).

As I remarked in part 3 of this series of blogs, the report HS2 and the environment lacks overt comments by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the possible implications for the environmental effects from the HS2 project of the exemption from satisfying the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. However, we did get the benefit of the views of the Committee’s Chairman, Joan Walley MP, on this matter when she spoke in the Second Reading debate for the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill in the Commons Chamber of Monday 28th April 2014 (video).

Her first contribution came as an intervention during the opening speech of the Transport Secretary that is reported in columns 558 and 559 of the Official Report. She asked the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, “is not the real concern about the Bill that there has not been a proper, rigorous and strategic environmental assessment?” adding that “there has not been an opportunity to properly assess phases 1 and 2 in the round”.

Mr McLoughlin chose not to address this concern, preferring instead to refer to the capacity issue in his response. So we had to wait for another three hours or so for Ms Walley to return to this theme during her own speech contributing to the debate (columns 611 and 612 of the Official Report). She was quite clear where she stands, saying that the situation regarding strategic environmental assessment was her “greatest concern”:

“… my head tells me spending £50 billion without a strategic environmental assessment will not necessarily ensure integrated transport policies for all parts of the UK, its cities and localities. Indeed, it might actually undermine many of the gains from increased rail travel that we have built up.”

For the benefit of Rt Hon and Hon Members present, she summarised the situation that Parliament found itself in regarding strategic environmental assessment:

“Effectively, the Supreme Court has ruled that the strategic environmental assessment directive does not apply because Parliament is now, through the hybrid Bill process, the decision-making body. The Government might claim that their version of strategic environmental assessment addresses those issues at the strategic level, but in reality Parliament, the decision-making authority, has had no role.”

She concluded that “Parliament is in a very confused situation” and that granting a Second Reading to the hybrid Bill “does not justify the iniquity of taking forward infrastructure investment of this magnitude without a strategic environmental assessment”.

She was about to tell us her plans to amend the instructions to the Hybrid Bill Select Committee, due to be debated the following day, when she was interrupted in mid-sentence by a brusque “order” from Deputy Speaker, the Rt Hon Dame Dawn Primarolo MP, as she had exceeded the five minute maximum allowed for contributions to the debate by backbenchers. Now Ms Walley is an experienced parliamentarian; she was first elected in 1987, and has no excuse for running out of time – Members have the benefit of a digital countdown of the time left to them on a video screen placed above the benches on each side of the Chamber. However, I can’t help feeling that our democracy is not well served when an important contribution, such as that from the chairman of a select committee that has just completed an inquiry pertinent to the subject under debate, is not permitted to complete her intended contribution.

So it was that we had to wait to the following day to hear more from Ms Walley, in the course of the debate by the Commons on motions covering the appointment of and procedures for the Hybrid Bill Select Committee. The honourable lady had tabled an amendment to one of the four motions to be debated, also bearing the names of other members of the Environmental Audit Committee. This was in accordance with a promise made in the final paragraph of the Summary section of HS2 and the environment:

“In the absence of a formal Strategic Environmental Assessment process for HS2, the Government should ensure that its instructions to the Hybrid Bill Select Committee: (i) include sufficiently broad ‘principles’ to allow full consideration of the environmental impacts of options still available, and (ii) require it to consider and report on the environmental impacts of the project, including the issues we have highlighted in our inquiry. We hope and expect that the Government will do so. If it, or others in the House, do not, we will seek to ensure that that an appropriate instruction motion is tabled.”

I will report on how this amendment fared in the final parts of SEA views, which will be my next two postings.

(To be continued …)



One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on June 20, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    How far Select Committees and MPs in dual roles can depart party policies has been of interest as have group think. The people and processes are not always objective. Party whipping may be tempered by some bandwidth spread.


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