Lessons from history, part 12

(… continued from Lessons from history, part 11, posted on 15 Aug 2014).

Probably the best place to begin a consideration of how long it might take for the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee to hear all the petitioners who want to appear before it is to look at what happened in the equivalent committee for Crossrail. The nominated sitting days for this committee were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, except when the House was in recess. The days on which the Crossrail Committee sat during the year 2006 are marked on the calendar below.

Crossrail Select Committee - Public Sessions 2006

Crossrail Select Committee – Public Sessions 2006

On the above calendar (which you can make bigger by clicking on it), days on which the Crossrail Committee heard petitions are marked in red. Other days when the Committee sat in public, but did not hear petitions are marked in green. Periods when the House of Commons was in recess are marked in blue (dotted line). The period of inactivity from 25th October 2006 to the end of the year is the Committee’s “strike” that I referred to in part 11.

Aside from this period of standoff, the Committee appears to have stuck to its task with some diligence. While there are a number of blanks in the regular three days a week pattern, it would be an unachievable aim to hold three petitioning-hearing days every week that the Commons is in session. For example, the Committee needs to hold meetings in private from time to time for Members to discuss issues amongst themselves, and any site visits that are organised will take up a day that would otherwise be available to hear petitions. There was also an apparent tendency towards brinkmanship in negotiations between petitioners and the promoter for Crossrail, which led to decisions to withdraw, or hold back, petitions scheduled to be heard at short notice – judging by the experience of HS2 Ltd so far, I have every expectation that this tendency will also be a feature of HS2. It is not really fair, or practical, to reschedule other petitioners to fill gaps in the Committee’s programme vacated by last-minute cancellations, so the Crossrail scheduling team tended to leave those gaps vacant (see footnote).

Over the period spanned by the week commencing 16th January 2006 to the week commencing 16th October 2006, which marks the timeframe during which the Crossrail Select Committee was actively hearing petitioners, there were 25 weeks during which the Committee was able to sit. During that time, the Committee managed to hear petitions on 55 days, an average of 2.2 days a week – as I said above, they were pretty diligent.

The work of the Crossrail Select Committee resumed on 16th January 2007 and its 2007 activities are summarised on the calendar below.

Crossrail Select Committee - Public Sessions 2007

Crossrail Select Committee – Public Sessions 2007

The work of hearing petitions was substantially completed on 28th March, but one further day was held in July to hear petitions arising from Additional Provision 4. The final public meeting of the Crossrail Select Committee took place on 9th October, to hear the promoter’s response to the Committee’s proposals.

So, if we ignore the single day in July, the hearing of petitioners in 2007 ran from the week commencing 15th January 2007 to the week commencing 26th March 2007, a span which provided the Committee with 10 weeks in which it could have sat. Petitioners were heard on 16 days during that period, the lower average of 1.6 days a week possibly reflecting a winding down in activities.

Whilst the span for the work undertaken by the Crossrail Select Committee quoted as 22 months in paragraph 22 of Volume 1 of the Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2006‑07 is correct, the actual period spent hearing petitioners would be more accurately reported as 14 months and the number of days on which petitions were heard was 73, not 84 as quoted in the same paragraph of the report.

So I should revise the estimate that I made in part 11 of this series for the time required to hear HS2 Phase 1 petitions. Using 14 months instead of 22 reduces the time estimate for HS2 Phase 1 by about a third, down to a little over six years.

Clearly this remains potentially extremely problematic for those responsible for managing the HS2 Select Committee’s timetabling, and they will, I imagine, need to find ways of speeding the process up.

One obvious way of doing this would be to try and up the average time spent hearing petitions each week that the Committee is able to sit. In this respect, I feel that the Crossrail Select Committee set a fairly high standard that its HS2 equivalent will find fairly hard to beat. In the statement that Robert Syms MP, Chairman of the HS2 Select Committee, made on 12th June (paragraph 11 in the transcript) he volunteered that his Committee would sit “on the occasional Tuesday evenings”. However, this appears to be a concession aimed at the convenience of petitioners who work for a living, rather than an attempt to speed up the process, as Mr Syms countered this by saying that Thursday afternoon sittings will “be scheduled only as necessary”.

However when the Committee’s programme for 1st September to 14th October 2014 was published recently, we learnt that regular Monday sessions have been added to the already fairly demanding three days a week schedule. The norm for these additional Monday sessions is for the Committee to plan to sit for three hours in the afternoon and two in the evening, so that’s very nearly the equivalent of a full day extra. True to the Chairman’s word, however, there are no Thursday afternoons currently scheduled – this is a popular time for MPs to travel back to their constituencies for the weekend. From what I can make out from the transcripts, the Crossrail Select Committee was more inclined to treat Thursday as a full day. So scheduling Mondays probably will gain the HS2 Select Committee a net half-day a week more than the Crossrail Committee managed, but I wonder how long they will be able to keep up sitting four days a week!

No Tuesday evenings have been scheduled so far, but the petitioners due to be heard at this stage do not appear to be ones that would benefit from an out of normal work hours session.

So is there anything else that can be done to speed up the work of the Committee?

(To be continued …)

Acknowledgement: The background calendars for the two images that I have used to illustrate this blog were generated on www.timeanddate.com/calendar.

Footnote: On one or two occasions no petitioners presented themselves on the day and the siting was abandoned. See page Ev 724 in Volume III of the Crossrail Select Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2006‑07 for an example of such a day.

Update: Since this blog was posted the programme for 1st September to 14th October 2014 has been revised. The new schedule observes the general principles that are outlined in the blog, save that a single Monday morning session has been added on 15th September; however, there is no Wednesday morning session planned that week.

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