Oh yeah?

In his recent statement to the House of Commons announcing the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b of HS2, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, said that he was “mindful of the impacts that HS2 has on communities”. He went on to provide an assurance to the House that his “Department and HS2 Ltd will continue to work with affected communities and local authorities up and down the line of route, and in that process [he expected] people to be treated with fairness, compassion and respect” (see footnote 1). Now I doubt that these were his words – I feel fairly sure that a faceless civil servant would have penned them for him – and the judgement of whether acceptable standards of fairness, compassion and respect have been achieved will always be subjective. Notwithstanding, I doubt that any fair-minded person would rate the treatment that has been dealt out to hapless residents living near the route designated for Phase 1 over the past six-and-a-half years as meeting anywhere near acceptable standards.

We know for sure that, in at least one respect, the Department for Transport (DfT) and HS2 Ltd have indisputably acted unfairly in dealings with the public, because the High Court ruled way back in 2013 that a consultation on the compensation proposals run by the DfT had been “so unfair as to be unlawful” and this ruling was accepted by the Government (see footnote 2).

I have also seen it necessary to use the word “unfair”, or similar judgements, in a whole raft of my blogs discussing the features of the compensation schemes conceived by the Government (see footnote 3) and the way that residents applying to those schemes have been treated (see footnote 4). An apparent lack of respect being shown to residents when they have been dealing with HS2 Ltd is also a matter that I have blogged about (see footnote 5) as well as instances that have been reported that clearly demonstrate a woeful lack of compassion being shown by employees of HS2 Ltd (see footnote 6).

No doubt lack of transparency and arbitrary decision-making lie at the root of many of the problems that have been encountered by applicants for compensation. In her recent evidence to the House of Lords Phase 1 HS2 Select Committee Hilary Wharf, of the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA), summed it up nicely (see footnote 7):

“There is a great feeling that cost has trumped fairness in the operation of this scheme, because discretion seems to be being seen from the promoter’s point of view, as better than rule changes. Precisely because they’re not cast iron and can be rolled back from. So, therefore, it risks arbitrary decisions. And without transparency, we can’t get precedents. Yet, the panel are given precedents, DfT know them and so we think it unfair that the applicants can’t get precedents.”

So, to return to the Transport Secretary’s statement to the House of Commons, what he was effectively declaring to the House, whether he recognised it or not, was that he expected the DfT and HS2 Ltd to do better in their dealings with residents close to the route of Phase 2b than they have managed to do up with residents living near the earlier phases. He may say that he expects this, and perhaps he even truly wants it to be the case, but it is unlikely to come about, I feel, without his positive influence being applied to make it happen. There are two factors, however, that make me doubt that the Transport Secretary will prove up to the task.

In the first case, the DfT is regarded as something of a staging post ministry, with Transport Secretaries moving on (up, down, out or sideways) fairly regularly – we have seen four changes since the original HS2 announcement was made, although one was forced by the result of a general election. So history suggests that the new occupier of the post may not actually stick around long enough to make a difference.

In the second place, I am not sure that the new incumbent will be up to the task. In recent weeks we have seen claims that HM Prison Service is “in meltdown” and, if this is an accurate assessment, then most of the blame must surely be placed at Mr Grayling’s door, as he was Justice Secretary between 2012 and 2015.

If the unfairness, etc, currently associated with the HS2 compensation regime is to be put right, then Ms Wharf’s evidence to the Lords Select Committee should give the Transport Secretary some useful tips on how to go about it, at least as far as the Need to Sell (NTS) scheme is concerned. She told the Committee that HS2AA had “a very clear and focused goal” to make “the need-to-sell scheme demonstrably fairer in operation” and to “put it on a basis that basically, the promoter can’t resile from” (see footnote 8). She went on to set out, in what the Chairman referred to as “a very clear presentation” (see footnote 9), a number of ways in which the scheme could be improved.

Just a week after Ms Wharf’s appearance, counsel for the Promoter, James Strachan QC, announced to the Lords Select Committee that the Secretary of State had accepted one of her proposed improvements to the NTS scheme, and that DfT officials were prepared to meet with HS2AA to discuss their wider proposals further (see footnote 10).

So, who knows, perhaps I have been too downbeat in my assessment of the prospects for fairness, compassion and respect to become words that we can associate with the HS2 project.

Oh yeah?

Footnotes:

  1. See column 134 of the House of Commons Official Report for 15thNovember 2016.
  2. This is reported in my blog Sorry seems to be the hardest word (posted 21 Mar 2013).
  3. For example, see my blog Fair is foul, and foul is fair (posted 8 Nov 2013).
  4. For example, see my blog The exceptionally hard to get scheme, part 2 (posted 9 Dec 2014).
  5. For example, see my blogs A matter of respect, part 1 (posted 11 Feb 2015), A matter of respect, part 2 (posted 15 Feb 2015) and A matter of respect, part 3 (posted 19 Feb 2015).
  6. For example, see my blog The exceptionally hard to get scheme, part 3 (posted 13 Dec 2014).
  7. See paragraph 484 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  8. See paragraphs 445 and 446 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  9. See paragraph 537 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 8thNovember 2016.
  10. See paragraphs 2 and 3 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 15thNovember 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 is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is 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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