Juggernaut Versus The People

A guest article by Arthur Dark:

The Juggernaut in question is the High Speed Rail Bill (London­West Midlands) otherwise known as the HS2 Hybrid Bill, now in the Committee stage of its passage through Parliament. Currently 5 M.P.’s (usually only 3, including the Chairman, actually attend) listen to some 1,925 petitions from town councillors, ad hoc groups of local residents, interested parties and individuals of all kinds speaking in support of their “humble petitions”. Yes, in the twenty­first century they appear as “humble petitioners,” supplicants, on oath, before the High Court of Parliament. They are not permitted to oppose the Bill directly, since parliament gave the Bill a second reading and therefore approved in principle the construction of a railway between London and Birmingham. All they can do is plead for mitigation of the railway’s impact on their lives, property and livelihoods. There is no other public forum available to them. The London Borough of Hillingdon pleads for a tunnel on the western side of the Borough to protect its residential suburbs and the Colne Valley regional park and recreational centre. Others plead for their neighbourhoods, farms and livelihoods which will be affected directly or indirectly. In every case they have to suggest a bridge here or a pathway there, not provided for in the Bill, or some other measure or measures that might help mitigate the railway’s effects. Mitigation is the word most often heard in the proceedings.

Against them is a team of 2 Q.C.’s, employed by HS2 Ltd., who are being paid handsomely at public expense to keep major changes to the scheme at bay and offer, if they have to, cosmetic alterations of various kinds. A favourite suggestion is a belt of trees to protect against the sight and sound of high­speed trains running at 330km per hour and passing every 1.6 minutes. Much time is expended explaining that quick growing species would soon provide a screen and that slower growing native hardwoods planted amongst them would provide long term protection. The quick-
growers would be regularly culled to encourage the hardwoods.

Appearing before the committee is a daunting experience especially when the witnesses are cross-
questioned by one of the Q.C.’s . All the tricks of the trade are employed; yes or no questions are asked accompanied by a pained and impatient looking into the sky instead of the petitioner’s face. Any attempt to qualify the answer is quickly brushed aside with another question. Any expression of distrust and irritation with HS2 Ltd. and its prevarications, silences and last minute replies seems to get very short shrift and this appears to come from both the M.P.’s and the lawyers. The integrity of the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd. (the D forT’s creature) is clearly an off-
limits issue. If the petitioner is small fry then reference back to a written reassurance from HS2 Ltd. that all will be well, or that the matter is still under examination, is usually enough to satisfy the Chairman.

The committee room is stuffy, filled with uncomfortable straight back chairs and an amplification system that very occasionally gives off loud squeals. The floor is draped in cables and the tables littered with box files. The cables are attached a series of very small T.V. monitors on which are displayed the many hundreds of maps, tables and photographs which both the petitioners and the HS2 legal team employ to make their points. These are quite imvisible to anyone watching from home via the parliamentlive website. On one occasion loud hammering overhead confirmed that the building is probably at the end of its natural life. Perhaps the most irritating interruption occurs when the M.P.’s periodically troop out to answer a division bell.

Many of the men and women who appear on behalf of their communities do a magnificent, indeed heroic, job in the circumstances. The Chairman is clearly anxious to hurry up the proceedings. One of my neighbours who presented a petition on behalf of our road received a note, just before she appeared, asking her to shorten her petition and reduce the number of illustrations. She wanted to tell the committee that they were paid to hear her and they must jolly well hear her out, but English deference prevailed. The petitioners usually appear on their own, sitting alongside the HS2 legal team. Most of the chairs behind them are occupied by a phalanx of HS2 officials who pass notes to and fro to the lawyers in front. Residents who have come to support their petitioner often find themselves having to watch proceedings on a television screen in an overflow room.

As someone living about 600 metres from the surface route of HS2 in Hillingdon I was glued to my computer from the 30th June whilst the London Borough, supported by their local M.P. Nicholas Hurd, presented its case. Shortly after the Hillingdon presentation was completed the Chairman announced, on the 13th July, that he was welcoming 3 new M.P.’s to the Committee to replace 3 standing down. Two days later, on the 15th he announced that Hillingdon’s case for a tunnel extension had been rejected. I have no idea which members of the committee he consulted or when, or which way they voted. I suspect nobody else does.

HS2 Ltd. claimed that an extension of the tunnel would cost £200,000,000 more than the estimate provided by Hillingdon. Nicholas Hurd M.P. found this discrepancy so large that he pleaded for arbitration by some objective body, but was turned down. If this had been a Public Planning Inquiry the Inspector would have almost certainly referred such a crucial issue to further expert examination. Ironically and about the same time, HS2 announced its proposal to spend an extra £215,000,000 on moving the Heathrow Express Depot from Old Oak Common to Slough. The proceedings of the Select committee are an outrage, politics dominate and the public interest is subordinated, As some of us predicted a long time ago the substitution of Hybrid Bill procedures for Public Planning Inquiries into major public works is disastrous.

Arthur Dark

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