Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP launched a scathing attack on HS2’s substandard conduct and poor treatment of petitioners in an appearance at the House of Lords HS2 Bill Committee on Thursday 1 December.
Mrs Gillan was invited by the Committee to speak about the process on behalf of her own constituents and for other MPs whose constituencies lie along the route of Phase 1 of the HS2 line. She previously had her right to speak on constituency issues denied earlier this year.
She condemned the leadership at the top of the £56 billion project, saying that it has had five Secretaries of State, five Ministers and four Permanent Secretaries at the Department for Transport, and is soon to appoint its third highly paid Chief Executive at HS2 Ltd: all within the six years since HS2 was announced.
Describing the hybrid bill process as “archaic and not fit for purpose”, the MP said that the prospect of using the same cumbersome system for Phase 2 “filled her with dread”.
She asked for a dedicated Minister for HS2 to give continuity of responsibility, given the high turnover of personnel in both the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd.
Constituents in Chesham & Amersham felt that they are being blamed for the tortuous progress of the petitioning process, Mrs Gillan told members of the committee. Electronic filing of petitions must be permitted. Although she had facilitated the physical depositing of petitions by effectively setting up a courier service for her constituents between Amersham and Westminster, such a solution would not be workable for constituencies on Phase 2A because of the geographical distance. Organisations representing groups of petitioners had not been permitted so there was inevitably a high volume of individual petitions.
The petitions process has been lengthy and expensive. HS2 Ltd had not been open to dialogue and communications, which could have led to mitigations at an earlier stage. More than 800 petitions alone were received about an extension to the Chilterns tunnel. Overall, Mrs Gillan said, accepting those arguments and providing the tunnel meant “the Government would have fulfilled its environmental obligations, and saved tens of millions of pounds.”
Having been refused ‘locus standi’, the right to speak on behalf of constituents, MPs had been prevented from carrying out their traditional role as advocates for their constituents. The approaches of the Commons and Lords differed: there must be consistent application of the rule.
The use of ‘corridor deals’ by civil servants was characterised as “thoroughly sneaky” by Mrs Gillan, who said that she and other MPs felt this practice was akin to “ambush” and that it preyed upon “the most anxious and most vulnerable”. Undue pressure had been applied, other MPs considered.
The process had effectively pitted constituents against highly experienced barristers acting for the Government. “This has been an adversarial process and one that I have noticed has become more combative as time has gone on,” she said.
She said that the format of the Committee itself left constituents often feeling ‘grilled’ by experienced HS2 QCs, when all they were doing was defending their homes and livelihoods.
HS2 Ltd had not given technical information to residents who had been denied the opportunity to prepare detailed proposals of their own.
The burden of the project has fallen on the parliamentary offices and there should be special dispensation as the project continues. An MP’s hotline is required.
The performance of HS2 Ltd has been “consistently substandard for a project of this size and resource,” said Cheryl Gillan. The situation in Staffordshire was such that this amounted to ‘maladministration’. MPs do not feel that there has been a change in culture within HS2 Ltd.
Fair and generous compensation must be prioritised for Phase 2, because this has not been the case for Phase 1.
Looking to solutions, Mrs Gillan said that, as well as modernising the petitioning system, having a public inquiry away from Parliament before the committee stage would reduce the pressures on parliamentary time. Colleagues had suggested that aspects of large infrastructure projects, like environmental mitigation or the property bond scheme, would be better handled by having a separate committee and allow constituents to express their views. Allowing written submissions would also assist in the process.
There must be a course of redress for petitioners and the decisions of the committee must also be enforceable, said Cheryl Gillan.
Calling on the Lords Committee to consider the submissions made about the hybrid bill review, Cheryl Gillan MP concluded:” This process should never be used again for a major infrastructure project. It has placed a tremendous burden on my constituents, and I do not think that it has been a fair forum for them to discuss their concerns. I will continue to do all I can to ensure that the impacts of this project are as little as possible for my constituents.”
“This hybrid bill process has been painful for Parliament and petitioners and has been at a high cost to the taxpayer.”