A matter of respect, part 3

(… continued from A matter of respect, part 2, posted on 15 Feb 2015).

The reasons for Warwickshire farmer Andrew McGregor’s displeasure with HS2 Ltd were revealed as his petition was heard by the HS2 Select Committee at the end of the morning session held on Wednesday 21st January 2015 (see footnote 1). The field that Andrew stands to lose to HS2 is not required for the construction of the railway, but is wanted for the planting of tree saplings as a part of the proposed environmental compensation. The field in question is particularly valuable to the family farm business of four generations as it is only 200 yards from the grain store (see footnote 2).

Andrew told the Committee that he had suggested alternative, and less damaging, locations for compensatory planting on his land and that his agents had written to HS2 Ltd describing these proposals in August 2013, but had received no reply. A reminder letter, sent in 2014, had received similar treatment and Mr Mould admitted to the Committee that he did not have a copy of those letters in his bundle (see footnote 3).

But, as I mentioned at the end of part 2 of this blog series, that very morning HS2 Ltd had inflamed the situation further by presenting Andrew with a third proposal, that took no account of Andrew’s own suggestions. Mr Mould advised that the proposal had been sent out “late” the previous afternoon, but, for whatever reason, it was obvious that Andrew had not seen it until the morning of his hearing, giving him little more than an hour to digest and analyse it before having to appear before the Committee.

The proposal as it was presented to Andrew, has now been published on the Select Committee’s website and I have reproduced it below.

Select Committee exhibit P3475(3)

Select Committee exhibit P3475(3)

It is obvious that it had been conceived in a hurry; Andrew described it to the Committee, with some justification, as “something that looks like a three-year-old child’s just drawn”. His initial reaction was that the new proposal “looks seriously worse” in that it would impact on some Grade 2 land in addition to the Grade 3 land affected by the original proposal (see footnote 4).

So it is a mystery to me why HS2 Ltd would have wanted to totally ignore the proposals put forward by the owners of the land. Committee Member, Henry Bellingham MP, appeared to share my incredulity (see footnote 5):

“Surely if the landowner farmer has got an alternative planting proposal, he knows his land far better than HS2 does, with respect. If he has ideas for an alternative area of mitigated planting, surely you should defer to his wisdom, understanding and be a bit more flexible.”

It is so blindingly obvious that Mr Bellingham was talking sense that I can only see two possible reasons why HS2 Ltd did not respond positively to Andrew’s alternative proposals. The first is administrative incompetence, which the organisation has ably demonstrated it is capable of, and the other is arrogance, of which there has always been at least a hint in my own experience of the organisation.

As had been the case with Bob Edwards (see part 1 and part 2 of this blog series), Mr Mould was conciliatory, and promised “further discussions” with the aim of achieving a solution that Andrew “could feel that he would be able to live with” (see footnote 6). But, as with Bob Edwards, we must ask why it took an appearance in front of the Select Committee for HS2 Ltd to be prompted to act in a reasonable way towards a landowner affected by the HS2 proposals.

And it’s not just me that thinks like this. During the hearing of a petition by another farmer, Samuel Burton (petition 1635), Committee Member, Michael Thornton MP, was minded to ask Promoter’s Counsel, James Strachan QC, why an offer to talk by HS2 Ltd “didn’t happen [earlier], so making it unnecessary for the petitioners to have to come all the way here, interrupt a working day, and talk to the Committee?” (see footnote 7).

To my mind however, the signal failure of HS2 Ltd to treat those affected by the HS2 proposals with consideration and respect that has been the subject of this blog series was condemned most effectively by Edward Briggs, acting as Roll B agent for Northamptonshire farmers Mervyn and Douglas Humphrey (petition 0322). Mr Briggs told the Committee that he was a chartered surveyor and land agent, specialising in advising farmers and landowners affected by all aspects of compulsory purchase. He commented (see footnote 8):

“I have to make this point, that in my general experience of 27 years of advising landowners on compulsory purchase schemes never before in such schemes have I had to deal with a process or promoter that has had so little regard to the interests of those directly affected. The lack of communication and dialogue has been startling. If I was cynical I would think that this process had been deliberately designed as such to limit the opportunities for people such as my client to have their fair say. If it is not deliberate, quite frankly it is shambolic.”

Now I hope that HS2 Ltd has got the message, and the last-minute Damascene conversions that we have seen in Committee Room 5 and the considerable list of petitions that have been withdrawn prior to their scheduled hearing dates indicate that they may have. However, HS2 Ltd has a considerable legacy of the bad treatment of those affected by its proposals to overcome and a backlog of rectification actions to put things right. I think that HS2 Ltd staff are finding it hard to keep up with the progress being made hearing petitions in Committee Room 5, and that this probably accounts for the frequent brinkmanship that we see, which has upset some petitioners.

There is a short hiatus in Select Committee sessions for the February recess and a much longer one, starting at the end of March for the general election. Hopefully, HS2 Ltd will use these breaks to catch up so that, where there is a chance of the Promoter and a petitioner reaching agreement, meaningful negotiations can take place with petitioners well in advance of a scheduled hearing date. This could lead to more petitioners electing not to take up the Committee’s time, leaving its Members to concentrate on deliberating in cases where the gap between the two parties is too great to be bridged.

If this is not achieved by the time that the Committee reassembles following the general election, then I think that there will be a strong case for the Chairman suspending sittings until HS2 Ltd has got its house in order.

Footnotes:

  1. Andrew McGregor’s hearing starts at 12:01 in the video of the session.
  2. See paragraphs 376 and 378 of the transcript for the morning session held on Wednesday 21st January 2015.
  3. See paragraphs 417 to 419 of the 21st January transcript.
  4. See paragraphs 407 and 409 of the 21st January transcript.
  5. See paragraph 425 of the 21st January transcript.
  6. See paragraphs 426 to 428 of the 21st January transcript.
  7. See paragraph 247 of the transcript for the morning of Tuesday 27th January 2015.
  8. See paragraph 404 of the transcript for the morning of Tuesday 10th February 2015.

PS: Comments made to the Select Committee by Tim Mould QC, and recorded in paragraphs 139 to 142 of the transcript for the afternoon session on Wednesday 11th February 2015, indicate that HS2 Ltd recognises the need to up its game on dealing with petitioners. So perhaps we can look forward to seeing an improvement, although Mr Mould was not able to forecast the end of “corridor deals”.

Acknowledgement: The Ordinance Survey mapping upon which the HS2 Ltd drawing is based has been reproduced in accordance with the principles of fair dealing as set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. On this basis, this mapping is:

Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO.

© Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.

Important Note: The documents from which the quotes and extracts reproduced in this blog are taken include uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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