Unfinished business, part 3

This is part three of a series that Peter Delow is running on his blog HS2 and the Environment.

In my blog SEA views, part 6 (posted 28 Jun 2014) I reported that the Chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) had written to her counterpart on the HS2 Select Committee in the wake of the EAC’s inquiry into the environmental impacts of HS2, drawing attention to the EAC’s findings, as published in its report HS2 and the environment. In her letter to Robert Syms MP, the then Chairman of the EAC, Joan Walley, refers to the UK Supreme Court’s considerations on the matter of the lack of a Strategic Environmental Assessment for HS2. She said that her committee saw “a clear expectation” in the Supreme Court’s deliberations that “Parliament will ensure that the Hybrid Bill process will deliver the requirements of the environmental assessment directives”. She added that the HS2 Select Committee “plays a vital role in fully addressing the environmental impacts”.

Ms Walley was also able to cite an assurance given to the House of Commons by Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport Robert Goodwill MP that amending the Bill to mitigate environmental impacts “is wholly within the scope of the Committee” (see footnote).

Ms Walley concludes her letter with a request and a hope: the request is that Mr Syms indicates in his reply how the HS2 Select Committee “plans to cover [the concerns that the EAC has raised] through its evidence taking” and the hope is that his committee “will be able to give these [environmental] matters the time and consideration they deserve”.

I’m not sure that Ms Walley would have been too comforted by the reply that she received from Mr Syms. Whilst Mr Syms was able to give the assurance that “both petitioners’ environmental concerns and the concerns of [the EAC] will be an important element of [the HS2 Select Committee’s] deliberations”, he did not detail any “plans to cover” the EAC’s concerns. Now you have to sympathise with Mr Syms; the spotlight being shone upon his committee’s role by the EAC was probably unwelcomed, even unsettling, and at the time of writing his letter (June 2014) he had barely got his feet under the table in Committee Room 5. However, the Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2014-15 was published more than nine months later. This was surely sufficient time for the HS2 Select Committee to have fully deliberated on Ms Walley’s request and to be in a position to make a considered response, yet you will search in vain for any mention of the EAC, or of Ms Walley’s correspondence, in that report.

I have to say that, on the basis of the evidence to date, I am very fearful that the HS2 Select Committee will not match Ms Walley’s expectations of them, and that the parliamentary process will fail properly to deliver on the expectations of the UK Supreme Court that led their Lordships and her Ladyship to demur from challenging legislative supremacy.

On a totally different topic, I am pleased to see that the Select Committee has commented in its report upon the brinkmanship often demonstrated by HS2 Ltd in its handling of petition negotiations, something that a number of petitioners have complained about and that I highlighted in my blog A matter of respect, part 3 (posted 19 Feb 2015). In paragraph 54 of the report it “deprecate[s] HS2 Limited’s lateness” in the matter of the tunnel report for Balsall Common and Berkswell – I guess that for a Commons report the use of “deprecate” implies fairly strong criticism.

However, the Committee delivers a much milder rebuke when it addresses the problem generally in paragraph 36, prefacing its remark with an acknowledgement that “last-minute settlement offers and settlement negotiations at the door of the committee room are probably to some extent inevitable” and, perhaps in recognition of this, deems it sufficient to “encourage HS2 Limited to be more timely in its engagement with petitioners”.

I am pleased to see that the Committee makes the same suggestion as I did in A matter of respect, part 3 that HS2 Ltd should use the parliamentary recess necessitated by the general election to catch up.

(To be continued …)

Footnote: The Minister said:

“If a petition includes environmental information that does not touch on the principle of the Bill, it is wholly within the scope of the Committee to consider that. If the Committee considers that some reasonable and practical mitigation could be introduced to address the issue, it will amend the Bill to do so. That is a key part of its role and its conclusions will be included in its special report.”

Column 765 in the House of Commons Official Report for 29th April 2014.

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