Human rights and human wrongs, part 1

I wound up my previous blog, Lords temporal (posted 17 Apr 2017), by making the observation that there was a “widespread feeling” amongst those who have lived for seven years with the threat, and now the reality for those on Phase 1, that the HS2 project will affect their lives, of being “badly let down” by the whole process that has legalised its construction. Many of those have found that property blight has made them poorer, at least on paper, and, for some, circumstances have dictated that the loss has been crystallised. In the worst cases, homes have proved impossible to sell, wrecking retirement plans, leaving those wishing to borrow without a means of securing the loan and those needing to discharge debts without a saleable asset.

It came, I am sure, as a shock to many that the provisions of UK Statute Law confine compensation eligibility to those whose properties are directly affected by a development project, either by land take or pollution from the finished development. There is no statutory reparation for the effects of planning blight on those not directly affected.

In recognition of the sheer size of the HS2 project, the severity of its effects and its potential to generate widespread blight, the Government has, as my readers will be well aware, attempted to address this major shortcoming by establishing supplementary, discretional compensation schemes. Although these proposals have been subject to the obligatory public consultations, I think it is fair to say that they have been largely imposed by the Secretary of State for Transport: the schemes are not specified by Act of Parliament, and have not, accordingly, been subjected to the level of Parliamentary scrutiny that applies to debating a bill. Although the schemes are administered in the Transport Secretary’s name, the making of discretionary decisions is effectively delegated to an advisory panel: whilst this panel is nominally independent, HS2 Ltd appears to have considerable influence over it, not least because it provides the secretariat and prepares its evidence papers. It is hardly surprising that there was a succession of petitioners at Westminster complaining about issues related to property values, the majority of which were from homeowners whose only hope of compensation is the Need to Sell scheme (NTS). There were many complaints about the operation of this scheme, and the refusal by the Government to adopt a property bond scheme, which some petitioners regarded as a practical, and potentially far more effective, solution to the problems that they were facing.

From the many comments that were made by petitioners to the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee, I have selected just a small sample.

John Lee (see footnote 1), who lives in Warwickshire, a little way down the Welsh Road old drovers’ route from me, described the tales that he and his fellow petitioners had to tell as “a sorry and sad litany”. He accused HS2 of “causing ruin in its wake” and claimed that “owners of nearly half a million homes, and tens of thousands of businesses are being forced, most with no prospect of fair compensation, to forfeit a proportion of their life savings and hard work to subsidise a project of very dubious economic merit”. At the same time “the vested interests who are driving this project stand to make a bonanza windfall from the woe, misfortune and loss of those people”.

He characterised the NTS as “no more than a reworked version of the existing, deeply flawed, and manifestly unjust Exceptional Hardship Scheme [EHS]”, and its adjudicating panel as a body that “wield[s] authoritarian power without visible accountability”.

Mr Lee recalled being assured personally by the then Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, when he visited Coventry in 2010 that the Government was “not going to dispossess people”, but feels that this is precisely what the Government has done “in ever increasing measure”. According to Mr Lee, “We were deceived, and we’re still being deceived”.

He accused the Government of having “misunderstood the proposition” underlying the property bond proposal (see footnote 2), and of having, by rejecting the proposal in favour of the NTS scheme, “stealth taxed by blight those affected by HS2 and created a moribund and dysfunctional property market in its wake”. He asked the Committee:

“If stealing part of our homes and businesses without fair compensation is not against the law, then it should be. I ask where is the government’s moral compass in all this? Where is the Promoter’s moral compass in all this?”

Mrs Mary Searle (see footnote 3), a resident of Twford in Buckinghamshire, expressed her anger that she and her husband “have worked and saved hard and lived within [their] means, only to have [their] investments intended to support [them] and help [their] children through university stolen from [them]”. She contrasted her position with that of her sister and brother-in-law who had, that previous summer, “made the wild decision to change their situation and lifestyle and move to a far-flung area of the British Isles”. She emphasised that her sister and brother-in-law did not need to sell and that hardship was not a factor in their decision, but they “have not had to justify this move to anyone”. Mrs Searle added:

“They have not had to lay bare their personal, medical and financial circumstances; it is their choice and theirs alone. Other than the normal costs involved in moving house, they will suffer no financial loss.”

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. Mr Lee’s quotes are taken from paragraphs 699 to 703 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Monday 2ndMarch 2015.
  2. Mr Lee is referring to what I called “the false assumption that property valuation must take place at the time that a bond is issued” in my blog If you think that, why don’t you do it? (posted 26 Nov 2013).
  3. Mrs Searle’s quotes are taken from paragraphs 188 and 189 in the transcript of the morning session of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Thursday 5thNovember 2015.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Commons HS2 Phase 1 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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