Remembrance of things past, part 2

(This is the second in a planned series of occasional blogs looking back over the proceedings of the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee).

When the Allen family from Twyford appeared before the Select Committee, father, mother and adult daughter, it was the twenty-something daughter, Teresa, who drew the Committee’s attention to something that should have been all too obvious to anyone observing the day-to-day events in Committee Room 5 (see footnote 1). She told the mostly grey-haired MPs (see footnote 2):

“Very few of my peers have put forward a petition, not because they aren’t concerned or because they actually support the project, but because they are actually completely put off by the whole process.”

She explained that presenting a case against HS2 to the Commons had, “for the majority of the people who have had to do so”, taken them “entirely out of [their] comfort zone”. She told the Committee that the extensive reading of documentation published by the Government that she had undertaken for “the last consultation process” had nearly caused her to suffer “a case of death by report reading” (see footnote 3).

“Since then”, she complained, “HS2 have had a whole team of people working full-time on churning out even more reports and diagrams and updating figures. I find it inconceivable for any member of the public with a full-time job to even scrape the surface of the amount of reading material produced …” (see footnote 4).

Teresa was right to highlight the problem that young working people like her face if they wish to defend their homes and lifestyles from HS2. It is surely quite hard enough for a young person pursuing a career, bringing up a family and paying the bills to find the time that all of this normal activity requires, without undertaking all of the extra demands that challenging HS2 presents. More often than not, it is only the retired who can devote enough time to petition, and it is this age group that predominated in the Commons proceedings. But even those who can allocate the time necessary to petition effectively, face the second difficulty that Teresa alludes to, which is the sheer complexity of the information that has been provided, and which is couched in what Teresa termed “jargon and legal speak” (see footnote 3).

Like many others, I have struggled to wade through the jumble of HS2 information: I can’t remember the last time that I read a book for pleasure, as there always seems to be some HS2 document that demands my attention.

This complexity was addressed by another petitioner, Andrew Boniface, who complained in particular about the information coming from HS2 Ltd on noise. He said (see footnote 5):

“As a layman, I find their responses to be confusing and evasive. They seemed determine and content to hide behind their veil of methodology and policy compliance which in themselves are of no direct interest to me. To make an analogy, if my doctor diagnoses me with a serious illness I don’t want or expect a long, probably one-sided, dialogue about cellular microbiology and epidemiology. I want to know my prognosis; what it means for me. Similarly, I want to know what the effects of this noise will be at all times on my neighbourhood. I want to know about outcomes not methods.”

This was something that I had myself addressed when I had given evidence to the Commons Select Committee on behalf of Cubbington Parish Council. I ventured “that HS2 Ltd should be able to produce better information [on noise] which would be more accessible to the average resident” and expressed the need “for a document aimed at affected individuals that sets out a clear statement of the Promoter’s policy on noise and noise mitigation using nontechnical language as far as possible” (see footnote 6).

Camden petitioners Jeremy Lewison and Caroline Schuck drew the Committee’s attention to another group who they felt were effectively excluded from the petitioning process; residents of social housing in Camden, who were predominantly of Bangladeshi origin. Mr Lewison complained that “none of these people are speaking up because a lot of them simply don’t understand the process” (see footnote 7).

An excellent summary of the issue in general was provided, on the same morning as Mr Lewison and Ms Schuck appeared, by Professor Richard Janko (see footnote 8):

“The Committee should be concerned that it’s heard mainly from people like us who are older, well educated, healthy and even somewhat organised. I’m more sorry for our neighbours who have lacked the time, confidence or resources, as it seems, to petition you. The busy parents of small children upstairs, junior doctors at the local hospitals, the shopkeepers in England’s Lane, who are appalled by this, but haven’t petitioned. We’re all up against an organisation of people, properly compensated to work full time to argue their case, a case for which their evidence has been flatly contradicted by other experts.”

I have just watched the video feed of the first morning’s session hearing appeals against Lords locus challenges and it seems to me that the whole problem of inclusion has got considerably worse with the petitioning process in the House of Lords. The Promoter’s Counsel, James Strachan QC, made an opening statement, which lasted the best part of an hour and which would not have been out of place, with its detailed references to legal precedents, in the Court of Appeal. With his experience as a Justice of the Supreme Court, I am sure that the Chairman of the Lords Select Committee, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, was perfectly at home with the detailed legal arguments offered by Mr Strachan. In contrast, the average petitioner would, I fear, regard this as an alien and intimidating prologue, setting an unwelcomed tone for the proceedings and signalling that Committee Room 4 may be a place intended for lawyers, rather than the ordinary citizen.

Footnotes:

  1. Teresa’s appearance starts at 17:23hrs in the video and paragraph 502 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 26thOctober 2015.
  2. See paragraph 504 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 26thOctober 2015.
  3. See paragraph 505 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 26thOctober 2015.
  4. See paragraph 506 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 26thOctober 2015.
  5. See paragraph 84 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 21stOctober 2015.
  6. See paragraph 301 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20thJanuary 2015.
  7. See paragraph 209 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 16thDecember 2015.
  8. See paragraph 260 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 16thDecember 2015.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record. 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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