Looking sheepish

The HS2 Select Committee has been repeatedly forced to face the reality of the failings of the compensation schemes to alleviate the suffering that HS2 blight can cause, as a series of petitioners have come before it with tales of woe. It is clear that the Members of the Committee are often very sympathetic to the individuals involved – and who wouldn’t be – but appear to be somewhat impotent, largely having to resort to asking the Promoter nicely to look again at specific cases.

However, last November Committee Chairman, Robert Syms MP, made a statement at the beginning of a morning petition-hearing session that appeared to indicate that the Committee was looking to take advantage of the imminent introduction of the Need to Sell (NTS) compensation scheme for HS2 Phase 1 to become more proactive (see footnote 1):

“On compensation, we request that HS2 give us sight of the proposed Need to Sell scheme as soon as possible, so that we can review the guidance and criteria and make suggestions for improvement. These suggestions might include a change of name for the scheme and the scheme should include a way of obtaining advance clearance …”

About three weeks later the Chairman made another “start of the day” statement about the NTS in which he confirmed that the Under Secretary of State for Transport had agreed to provide a pre-publication draft of the guidance notes for the scheme and to arrange for a briefing for the Committee by officials from the Department for Transport early in 2015. The Chairman expressed the hope that these arrangements would give the Committee “an opportunity to look at [the scheme proposals] and to have some input before final decisions are taken” (see footnote 2).

The terms of this offer to the Committee were that, since the information being provided was in advance of the scheme details being made public, the release would be on an “in confidence” basis. Consequently, no details have been published of any exchange of views between the Committee and the Government, and we are left to speculate about what, if any, changes the Committee may have requested to the scheme and whether the government acceded to any such requests.

All of this account so far I have previously rehearsed, in my blog Welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 3 (posted 10 Jan 2015). I also commented in that blog on the inordinately long gestation period of the NTS; the original proposals were put out to public consultation in September 2013, although the scheme was called the long-term hardship scheme in those days (see footnote 3). The details of the scheme were formulated, and published, in April 2014; the revised scheme, rechristened the Need to Sell scheme, exhibited changes in respect of the terms for all five of the NTS eligibility criteria in the light of comments received during the 2013 consultation (see footnote 4).

So what the Select Committee received in pre-publication draft was basically a document that had been on the shelf since April 2014, and any comments that the Committee would have made came very late in the day. It is always hard to get a proposal changed after the formulation stage has passed, and I think that this must have been the case with the NTS; the guidance notes for the NTS that were published in January this year do not, as far as I can see, feature any changes from the scheme as originally conceived for the 2013 consultation that were not foreshadowed in the Government’s April 2014 response to that consultation. So if the Committee did seek any changes, it would appear that the Government was not persuaded to alter the scheme, and, of course, the scheme name has been retained, despite being disliked by the Select Committee.

However, the Committee can take some comfort that two of the changes that were made in response to the public consultation have particular relevance to matters that have been raised during sessions of the Select Committee: permitting evidence to be submitted that estate agents will not market the property (Criterion 3), and requiring a compelling reason to sell to be demonstrated, rather than hardship (Criterion 5).

Notwithstanding, it does appear to remain the case that at least one member of the Committee harbours doubts about the NTS. In a discussion that followed the announcement by Tim Mould QC of the details of the NTS at the start of the first session of the HS2 Select Committee following the public launch, Sir Peter Bottomley returned to a theme that he had raised a number of times before, as Mr Mould did not fail to remind him (see footnote 5).

In a nutshell, Sir Peter is looking for an assurance that property owners that can foresee a need to sell in future, due to failing health or the need to boost retirement income for example, can apply before the need to sell becomes urgent, but delay selling to the Government until the appropriate time. According to Mr Mould, Sir Peter need not fear that such applicants will be rejected, because as he told him (see footnote 6):

“… the scheme allows for an offer made under the Need to Sell Policy to remain open to acceptance, open to being taken forward by the successful applicant for a period of three years after the offer is made, and I am confident that those who are administering the scheme, and who are considering individual applications, will have that aspect of the scheme well in mind when they come to consider individual applications.”

The problem that I have with this assurance, and I am sure that it would not have been missed by Sir Peter, is that the NTS terms have not been written with this requirement in mind and, if applicants are to be accepted in advance of a “need to sell” stage having been reached, the NTS Panel will have to take a very flexible approach regarding Criterion 3, which requires an applicant to have “made all reasonable efforts to sell”.

As well-educated people, the Members of the Select Committee appear to be heeding the advice timeo Danaos et dona ferentes and, in the absence of a specific change to the terms of the NTS, are keeping a watching brief. As Robert Syms put it: “we’ll be monitoring all these arrangements very carefully” (see footnote 7).

This episode reminds me of one of the most celebrated Parliamentary put-downs of the post-war period, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, now Lord Healey, likened criticism of his handling of the economy in a Commons speech by Sir Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe of Aberavon, as “like being savaged by a dead sheep” (see footnote 8). I have concerns, but hope that I am wrong in my opinion, that the Government may regard the HS2 Select Committee as a something of a dead sheep that they don’t really have need to fear.

If they think that, they could be wrong. After all, it was the very same dead sheep disparaged by Denis Healey who is regarded by most commentators as having lit the fuse that led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher when he made his “broken cricket bat” resignation speech in 1990.

Footnotes:

  1. The Chairman’s statement is recorded in paragraph 2 of the transcript of the morning session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 26th November 2014.
  2. See paragraph 2 of the transcript for the morning of Tuesday 16th December 2014.
  3. The scheme details that were put out to consultation may be found in Section 4.3 of the consultation document.
  4. These changes, and the reasons for them, are detailed in Chapter 5 of the document Property Compensation Consultation 2013 for the London-West Midlands HS2 route: Decision document, Cm8833.
  5. The exchange between Sir Peter and Mr Mould is recorded in paragraphs 10 to 19 of the transcript for the afternoon of Monday 19th January 2015.
  6. See paragraph 14 of the transcript for the afternoon of Monday 19th January 2015.
  7. See paragraph 26 of the transcript for the afternoon of Monday 19th January 2015.
  8. See column 1027 of the House of Commons Official Report for 14th June 1978.

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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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on February 28, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Same side of the coin. This Select Committee is of little consequence when Additiona Provisions can be spung on people without a MP vote on the change. The neutalisation of the Select Committee came at the time of establishing the constraints.
    Serial excusers are seasoned MPs. Doubt if the audience of the Select Committee is of sufficient size or influence to reproduce a downfall. The downfall may have been a sequence of steps and circumstances. The sequence is not clear in this article but will require other realisations. The Select Committee dimension is of little impact for the relative few petitions. The Select Committee has not the powers to make meaningful changes as the HS2 swells with costly defenders of the poor plan.

    Reply

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