This was originally published as Welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 4 on HS2 and the Environement.
(… continued from Welcome to another fun-packed year in HS2 Land, part 3, posted on 10 Jan 2015).
One of the events that I am most looking forward to in 2015 is the publishing of the report on its inquiry The Economic Case for HS2 by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee (EAC). I would think that this is something that we will see before the general election, unlike a number of other HS2 loose ends; I’m sure that the Committee will want to clear all of its business in hand before their colleagues from the House of Commons go away to the country, with some destined never to return.
I’d be lying if I said that I have listened to every minute of the public evidence sessions that have been held so far by the Lords EAC – whilst I do intend to address this deficiency as soon as I am able, I have been rather occupied with preparing for my turn in Committee Room 5 recently – but what I have seen has demonstrated to me that the select committee process can often be seen at its best when it’s a committee of the Upper Chamber. I often feel that members of select committees of the House of Commons are perhaps not always as rigorous in their questioning as befits the task, and are far too inclined to accept feeble answers from their witnesses without challenging them. This is probably just a reflection of the generally more cerebral atmosphere that appears to be a feature of the Lords Chamber.
Some witnesses that I have seen being questioned have, to my mind, failed to appreciate this difference, and have attempted to bluster through. If they have, they have generally come off the worse for it; in this respect I particularly recall a very poor showing by the Transport Secretary, but there have been others who have failed to pass muster.
If you need any proof of the thoroughness with which the EAC is approaching its task, you only have to look at the time that they are spending questioning their witnesses. The session that they held the day before this blog was first posted marked the tenth such that they have dedicated to oral examination of witnesses. Forty-two individuals, representing academia (including various think tanks), consultants, departments of government, campaigners against HS2, local government councillors and officers, the rail industry, business in general, Westminster politicians and HS2 Ltd, have been allowed their say on HS2.
It is clear that at least one, and probably one or two more, of the Members of the EAC are healthily sceptical, if not downright anti, when it comes to whether HS2 has an economic case, and this adds a bit of spice to the public sessions, and a glimmer of hope that we won’t get a totally insipid report at the end of this inquiry.
Another recent development has also tickled the taste buds with anticipation of interesting developments. On 22nd October 2014 the Chairman of the EAC, Lord Hollick of Notting Hill,wrote to the Transport Secretary stating that it had “emerged” from the EAC’s inquiry that “there are varying views on whether trains in and out of Euston are overcrowded and whether there is spare capacity on the West Coast Main Line”. A reply duly followed, but almost a month later, and a follow-up letter was sent by the Noble Lord seeking further assistance from the Transport Secretary on 24th November; as I said, the Lords select committees are generally not inclined to accept less than satisfactory answers.
Although addressed to the House of Commons, a further answer found its way to its intended recipient; this letter, as well as being wrongly addressed, is undated, but was published on the EAC’s website on 14th December 2014. This letter advised that some of the data requested by the EAC, and that would appear to be essential to testing the DfT’s claim that the West Coast Main Line (WCML) is within a few years of running out of spare capacity, could not be provided to the Committee by virtue of it being “highly commercially sensitive”. This is, of course, a claim that we have heard before.
I presume that the Chairman of the EAC is now considering what to do next. I will be very disappointed, not to say disillusioned, if the EAC lets the matter rest there. If the information is truly commercially sensitive then I can understand that it shouldn’t be made public, but surely that wouldn’t preclude making the data available to the EAC on a confidential basis. I, for one, would be quite happy for the EAC to act as my proxy in coming to a decision if the DfT is right to claim that the WCML is approaching its passenger limit.
Since we are being told that the justification for HS2 is all about capacity, there surely needs to be an honest broker to examine the claims that are being made and report to other politicians, and the people that they serve, on whether we are being presented with a fair appraisal.