Knowing a hawk from a handsaw

A couple of weeks ago I received a telephone call from BBC TV at Birmingham requesting that I attend the filming of an interview with one of my neighbours for the Midlands Today regional news programme. The neighbour concerned is Bob Edwards, who operates a falconry experience business from his home property and who I first introduced to you in my blog Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 4 (posted 26 Oct 2014).

The reason that I had been invited to take part was that Bob had been kind enough to sing my praises to the BBC for some help that I had given him in pursuing his claim for compensation from HS2 Ltd and preparing his evidence for his petition hearing in the House of Commons. So I duly attended and gave the BBC’s Business and Transport Correspondent, Peter Plisner, the benefits of my views on the way that Bob had been (mis)treated by HS2 Ltd in a short interview that we recorded: this interview ended up on the cutting room floor, but I was happy to help out and the news item was not about me, anyway, it was about Bob.

That Bob’s plight was still newsworthy in mid-2016 points to a major failure in HS2 Ltd public relations, as we all assumed that the matter had been resolved by Bob’s appearance in January 2015 before the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee, which I was present at and reported in my blogs A matter of respect, part 1 (posted 11 Feb 2015) and A matter of respect, part 2 (posted 15 Feb 2015).

To summarise Bob’s situation as it was described to the Committee then: he will be completely surrounded by HS2 construction works – the construction drawings prompted Committee Chairman, Robert Syms MP, to comment that the area around Bob’s home “looks like Stalingrad” (see footnote 1). Despite this, his property is not within the safeguarded area and, being some 175 metres from the trackline, it is also outside the rural support area. The HS2 construction operations will severely curtail, or more likely totally preclude, Bob’s ability to fly his birds over the land that he uses at present, and, in addition to the risk to his birds’ health that stress will pose, there is an appreciable risk that spores of aspergillosis released into the air by earthmoving operations will kill them.

It appeared on that January 2015 day that Bob was home and dry. Before his Commons Select Committee appearance he was in a position where all he was getting from HS2 Ltd was sympathy and “sorry but we can’t help you”. At the hearing the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, conceded that Bob had a prima facie case for compensation for the relocation of his business. Since it had also been demonstrated that business and residence needed to be side by side, Mr Mould was also able to agree, “absolutely”, with Committee Member, Ian Mearns MP, that this implied “a move lock, stock and barrel for the household and all the other things that link up with it” (see footnote 2).

The silk agreed that HS2 Ltd would “have some serious discussions with the petitioner about compensation” and would report back to the Committee on progress in March 2015 (see footnote 3). HS2 Ltd subsequently agreed, to its credit, to fund professional advice to assist Bob with these discussions. In the light of this I agreed with Bob that I would step back and leave the professionals to advise him.

Despite the promise that had been made by Mr Mould, I can find no reference in the public record of any report on the progress of discussions about compensation for Bob having been made before the Commons Select Committee stood down in February 2016.

I contacted Bob in March this year to see how things were going, and learnt that his dispute with HS2 Ltd remained unresolved. The problem area was the compensation package on offer to Bob for his house, in that HS2 Ltd were not prepared to include a resettlement package in line with what claimants under the Express Purchase Scheme receive. Government policy is that claimants under the discretionary compensation packages on offer for HS2, such as the Voluntary Purchase Scheme, are entering into “property sale which is at the discretion of the individual involved”. In the case of the Need to Sell Scheme, the Government view is that claimants are “individuals who would have had a need to sell their property regardless of HS2”. So the policy is that, in neither case, is it “reasonable to suggest that additional payments be made to compensate for costs incurred or emotional distress caused by a property sale”: the Government position is that it is offering a “means of enabling property owners to move should they wish to and in no way does it imply that the Government wishes to force the property owner into a sale” (see footnote 4).

It was this policy that appeared to be the stumbling block: HS2 Ltd felt bound by it, despite it being obvious that Bob had no option but to move to preserve his business, and would have no desire to move were it not for the impacts on his business that would result from the construction and operation of HS2.

I suggested to Bob that it would be prudent for him to deposit a petition with the Lords Private Bill Office, regarding this as only a precaution as I fully expected that his claim would have been resolved long before the time came for him to appear before the Lords Select Committee. I was wrong in this expectation, which led to Bob having to travel to Westminster in July.

Introducing his Midlands Today piece about Bob, Peter Plisner described the outcome of his appearance before the Lords Select Committee as “a major victory”; if so, it was the defeat of an enemy who didn’t put up any fight. Tim Mould QC, representing the Promoter once again, said that he “would very much welcome the Committee’s view”: he virtually told the Committee, “Tell us to pay the man, and we will” and suggested that the Committee might feel able to act “relatively swiftly” (see footnote 5). It was almost like an undisciplined child seeking moral guidance from a parent.

Committee Chairman for the day, Lord Freeman, was happy to oblige Mr Mould, describing the moment as “the first time in the proceedings of this Committee where I think we sense the need for moving quickly” and promising a judgement after lunch that day (see footnote 6).

This judgement was duly announced first thing in the afternoon session, and surely came as no surprise. Lord Freeman told Bob that he should be paid (see footnote 7):

“… any additional costs such as home loss payment, stamp duty land tax on a replacement residential property, domestic removal costs and similar extras that might be payable, had your property been located within the safeguarded area.”

The BBC reports HS2 Ltd as confirming that it “respects” the Committee’s decision, so presumably Bob will receive the additional payments. Bob told Peter Plisner that he was “massively relieved” at the judgement, but that he was “going to be even more relieved once the money’s in the bank”.

Bob’s caution may be well-founded because, as others have found, there may be a sting on the tail when it comes to property valuation.

My verdict, for what it is worth, is that this matter should never have gone to the House of Lords: in the light of the outcome of the hearing in the other place HS2 Ltd should have agreed to make the additional payments long ago, and it is shameful that this wasn’t done.

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 29 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20th January 2015.
  2. Mr Mould’s analysis of the case for compensation is reported in paragraphs 70 to 80 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20thJanuary 2015. The exchange with Mr Mearns is reported in paragraphs 81 to 84 of that transcript.
  3. See paragraph 86 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20thJanuary 2015.
  4. See paragraphs 5.3.49 and 7.3.14 of Cm 8833, Property Compensation Consultation 2013 for the London-West Midlands HS2 route: Decision document, Secretary of State for Transport, April 2014.
  5. See paragraph 55 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 20thJuly 2016.
  6. See paragraph 74 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 20thJuly 2016.
  7. See paragraph 4 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 20thJuly 2016.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Lords HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken includes 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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