Yesterday, the HS2 Hybrid Bill Committee had their first public meeting. They can have been left with no doubt that HS2 Ltd are not exactly the best when it comes to communicating and sharing information.
The very fact that the meeting, which was on this issue of timetabling, actually happened was very positive as it didn’t have to happen. There had been concerns raised to the Committee that the timetable was being drawn up by HS2 Ltd without the input of others, so the Committee called in all the Roll A agents as well as HS2 Action Alliance and Stop HS2 to share their thoughts.
The idea which had been put forward by HS2 Ltd was that petitions should be heard on a geographical basis. With Euston completely up in the air, there is no chance of starting in the south, so they had suggested the section from Birmingham to the Delta Junction at Water Orton should be done first, then they should go up to the top where HS2 is planned to join the West Coast Mainline and go down, obviously skipping over the Water Orton section which they would have already covered.
Before the meeting, letters had been flying around from various Roll A Agents representing Birmingham City Council and Centro pleading that they should not go first, as this would mean they could be up in front of the Committee this July, and due to ‘slow communication’ with HS2 Ltd they would not be ready, instead asking to be scheduled some time after the summer break in September or later, with Paul Thompson of Bircham Dyson Bell said:
“We do not accept that the enormous issues at Curzon Street can be dealt with by July.”
Hilary Wharf, a Director of HS2 Action Alliance went on to say that:
“It is clear that neither the north end or the south end is ready to start, this is both from correspondence which we have been seeing, and from the state of the Environmental Statement.”
She went on to suggest that route-wide issues such as construction, noise and compensation could be looked at first, before taking local issues in a north-south order. After Miss Wharf suggested that the committee should conduct site visits, Committee Chair Robert Syms MP confirmed that they were discussing a programme of visits, but that the idea that they Committee may meet outside of London was still to be discussed. She was also concerned that everyone would get enough notice of being called, and enough time to speak when they were called.
The idea of taking route wide issues first was backed up by Stop HS2 Manager Joe Rukin, who said:
“We feel that it would be very sensible to get some of the very technical stuff out of the way first and as these are route-wide effects, these will influence your decisions about mitigation, once the principle of how much sound there will be and how it will transmit has been established.”
Mr Rukin then went on to point out that HS2 Ltd are still to provide ‘additional provisions’, which means making changes to the current plans, and that it might be worth waiting until the Committee knows the scope and location of these before starting hearing petitions, as otherwise they may have to do some places twice.
Mr Rukin also stated communities found it hard to take that Birmingham CC and Centro had complained about slow communication, saying that “Slow communication is better than no communication.”, and that due to a lack of information provided by HS2 Ltd, that many communities were “petitioning blind” as they did not know the height of HS2 passing through their area, a fundamental issue with any planning application.
In the second session, Alastair Lewis of Sharpe Pritchard and Robbie Owen of Pinsett Masons both asked that the committee not to start hearing petitions until September, with the later saying that there were 30 outstanding points concerning the proposed stations in Birmingham, and that in the case of Centro, who are one of the main supporters of HS2 Phase 1:
“Despite a lot of effort, not much progress has been made in terms of meaningful discussion with the promoter [HS2 Ltd], and therefore we think it is fanciful that between now and July all the concerns will be resolved, because the track record is not very encouraging.”
He went on to mention the way HS2 Ltd have stonewalled Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, saying:
“They’ve been trying to have discussions with the promoter since July 2011….. They put forward an alternative engineering solution last autumn, and they’ve had very little response indeed. That is representative of how a lot of our clients feel.”
Mr Owen also wanted clarity on the possibility of a link to HS1, as while the proposed link has been dropped a number of his clients want to look at the possibility of a different link to HS1 being added in the future.
Helen Kemp from Berwin, Leighton Paisner again said that her clients did not want hearings to start in July, and that they did not think there had been adequate testing of alternative sites for the proposed HS2 depot in Washwood Heath.
Ron Perry from Veale Wasbrough Vizards was on last, and brought up the West Midlands Fire and Security Body, who are responsible for emergency services in that area:
“It has been extremely difficult, for whatever reason to obtain to sort of information and assistance to know what the severity of impact on emergency services is going to be from the scheduled works. Recently discussions have started in some detail… but the level of detail required is not going to come to fruition within the next six weeks.”
He went on to say that the WMFSB had been asked by HS2 Ltd to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and that with another one of his clients, a Local Authority there was a
“Lack of understanding of the height of a structure which is going to pass through the area, so those are rather basic elements of detail, and I don’t know why that information hasn’t been available, but it hasn’t.”
With the lack of information being the main theme from both panels caused Yasmin Qureshi MP to ask if it was a case of HS2 Ltd being not willing to discuss details, or just not acknowledging problems. Mr Lewis answered, saying:
“It’s a mixture of all those things. Some of my clients have been round the table with HS2 and have been pretty much stonewalled on everything, while others have found it a little more difficult to get things going at all in the first place. I do think it’s a real matter of concern across the board.”
The Committee will meet again in early June. From the discussions heard, it is likely that when they do start holding hearings with petitioners, the first issue would be to hold all the challenges to locus standi first.
You can watch the session in full below. It lasted for less than an hour.