Unfinished business, part 4

(… continued from Unfinished business, part 3, posted on 30 May 2015).

In the “Summary” section of the HS2 Select Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2014-15 “home purchase”, in particular “the urgent necessity for the Need to Sell scheme to function properly, and efficiently”, is described as the Committee’s “priority”. This is hardly surprising as the petition hearings have been dominated by complaints from property owners, and even one or two tenants, who are seeking compensation and feel aggrieved at the way that they have been treated.

In the absence of anything resembling an independent appeal system for the discretionary compensation schemes that have been introduced by the Government, it is good that the Select Committee is, at least, providing a safety valve for some very upset petitioners. However, the real test will be whether the Committee will be able to achieve more for these petitioners than merely lending them a sympathetic ear. In blogs that I have posted earlier this year I have been critical of the approach that the Select Committee has taken to this thorny issue. In Looking sheepish (posted 27 Feb 2015) I reproved the Committee for its apparent lack of success in getting the Government to make changes to the Need to Sell scheme (NTS) prior to its launch. In Flexible friends, part 1 (posted 7 Mar 2015) and Flexible friends, part 2 (posted 15 Mar 2015) I chastised the Committee for encouraging petitioners to apply to the NTS when, prima facie, they did not appear to satisfy the scheme’s eligibility requirements, and for treating petitioners as “guinea pigs” as a consequence.

I do appreciate that the Committee has a problem here, which is that the powers conferred on it to amend the hybrid Bill will not allow it to make changes to the discretionary compensation schemes, as these do not fall within the scope of the Bill. Accordingly, it is not clear to me if the Committee will be able to propose necessary improvements to the compensation schemes with any force. It would appear, from what we have seen up to now, that mere “suggestions” by the Committee are unlikely to be accepted by a Government that has already shown that’s its reflex action in response to any suggestion that the compensation proposals should be improved is to reach for the calculator to work out how much it might cost.

Notwithstanding, I guess that we should be grateful that the Select Committee has, at least, been sufficiently exercised by issues of compensation to devote twenty-eight paragraphs of its report to this topic. The main views expressed therein are as follows:

  • The Committee does not support extending the circumstances where removal expenses and home loss payments are made automatically (paragraph 110).
  • The Committee feels that there will be a limited number of special cases where the Promoter should be prepared to offer compensation outside of the rules of the standard provisions (paragraph 111).
  • The Committee feels that the NTS should be “more accepting” than the EHS (paragraph 115).
  • The Committee wants the NTS to extend in practice to those having a justifiable reason to move (paragraph 116).
  • It is the Committee’s view that evidential requirements should be less onerous and that “some humane discretion is called for” (paragraphs 116 and 117).
  • The Committee makes a number of suggestions for HS2 Ltd to be more helpful to applicants, including those that have already been rejected for the EHS (paragraph 118).
  • The Committee thinks that the NTS “compelling reason to sell” requirement should not restrict compensation only to those who are looking to move soon (paragraph 119).
  • The Committee requires that urgent case, e.g. in the case of terminal illness, should be dealt with urgently (paragraph 123).
  • The Committee feels that the treatment of some EHS cases was “wrong and unjust” (paragraph 126).
  • The Committee says that it wants to see the NTS working “efficiently and fairly” long before the end of the select committee process (paragraph 134).
  • The Committee says that it has not ruled out the possibility of directing the implementation of a property bond scheme if improvements to the compensation package are not forthcoming (paragraph 134).

With the exception of the first point, these are all positives, and if the Committee can make them happen, then I for one will be happy to eat my words; I just wish that I could summon up more faith that this process will deliver.

Even on the first point the Committee’s position is not entirely negative. Its report identifies the reason that the Exceptional Hardship, Need to Sell and Voluntary Purchase schemes do not pay removal expenses and home loss payments is that those outside the safeguarded area “have some element of choice in whether to move” and characterises the Government’s position in this respect as “not unreasonable”. However, the report also concedes that the impacts of HS2, particularly during the construction phase, may be so egregious that for some property owners in this position the “degree of choice will be minimal” – and those of us who have paid attention to the goings on in Committee Room 5 will surely be able to recall examples where petitioners previously settled into their homes long term now feel forced into a situation where they have little choice but to move.

The Committee’s solution to this conundrum is that the Government “should offer an element of extra compensation, although not to equate their cases with compulsory purchase cases” in a “limited number of … special cases”. Whilst I agree in principle with the Committee’s suggestion that an improvement in this respect is warranted, I fear that it would be very difficult to draw up a set of criteria to determine when such “extra compensation” was due that would ensure equitable and consistent treatment for all.

(To be concluded …)


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