Yesterday the HS2 Hybrid Bill passed its’ final hurdle in the House of Commons, as the amendments made in the House of Lords were accepted by MPs. Normally, with so many ministers having constituencies along the route, many of those impacted by HS2 have sadly become accustomed to seeing their MP absent from HS2 debates, but this time only five MPs with constituents impacted by the line of the route speaking, with Tamworth MP Chris Pincher waiting until it was passed to suddenly decide “I believe that HS2 is a vital project for the United Kingdom”.
Three MPs impacted by the route were absolutely in the Commons during the debate, because Hansard says they were bust speaking in what they clearly thought was a more important issues, the potential visit to the UK of USA president, Donald Trump.
These MPs included Rupa Huq, the Ealing MP who last year complained that constituents had had zero valuations of properties due to HS2, and Liam Byrne who has been a long critic of the HS2 land-grab at Washwood Heath which will limit job creation in his heavily deprived constituency. Perhaps the most notable absentee was Hamstead & Kilburn MP Tulip Saddiq, as the House of Lords Committee had wanted Government to see increased compensation for some of her constituents, but the Government has so far failed to act on this proposition, something you may have thought was more important than a state visit.
It was of course totally possible to speak in both debates, as demonstrated by Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham, who did just that. It was appropriate that Cunningham spoke about the unavailability of compensation, as he is the only MP who has constituents directly impacted by the HS2 route (HS2 just misses Coventry, but construction goes right up to the constituency boundary with Kenilworth & Southam, taking land from some constituents) who has publically opposed HS2 in the House of Commons since it was first announced in 2010.
Besides the Deputy Speakers (for some reason two of them presided over this debate), just 12 MPs were in the chamber when Cunningham spoke, with the total rising to 20 at one point.
As she has since 2012, Cheryl Gillan led the dissent, starting off with a swipe at the people who have persuaded the parties of the ‘need’ for HS2, saying:
“I do not underestimate the fortunes being made—by the top echelons of HS2, certainly, but also by people who are benefiting from very lucrative contracts at the taxpayer’s expense.”
She went on to point out that much of the amended text they were debating aimed to correct mistakes made by HS2, such as not still knowing where parish boundaries were over six years in, and praise the deletion of the land grab clause from the Bill, which would actually have allowed the Secretary of State for Transport to make a compulsory purchase order anywhere in the country, before lamenting how HS2 Ltd treat people:
“All the major changes to traffic referred to in Lords amendments 12 to 25 will require good community engagement. When it comes to engaging with local communities, however, HS2 still has a lot to learn. My right hon. Friend Mr Lidington, my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve and I know that we and the constituents we represent are not being treated with due respect.”
“My constituents have instances of HS2 experts failing to take local concerns seriously, even to the extent of giving incorrect information. Indeed, many of these amendments contain corrections to inaccuracies in the legislation. I understand that this is now a matter of formal complaint, but HS2’s actions have continued to fall short of what is expected from a public body. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam has noted that people often have to resort to freedom of information requests and to petitioning Select Committees because communication with HS2 is so poor. It is really disappointing that HS2 Ltd has not shown more empathy or understanding of the human cost of HS2, even now.”
Gillan, who also mention some concerns of Attorney General Jeremy Wright MP, had a final word for the fact that MPs, many of whom were Ministers and therefore could not speak in the House of Commons on HS2 due to protocol, were banned from speaking in the Lords:
“The Government had a simple solution in their hands: they could have let all the MPs represent their constituents, but they chose not to do so…. It was really and truly a case of being let down by your own side and of your own side letting down democracy.”
Caroline Spelman, shared her concerns, saying:
“It is incomprehensible to our constituents, who have elected us to speak for them, that we should be prevented from articulating the real concerns that have arisen since this legislation left our House. There are very strong feelings among our constituents about that prohibition.”
Spelman was exceptionally concerned about the impacts to her constituency and specifically green spaces and the green belt, but also lamented the actions of HS2 Ltd:
“Let me tell the Minister that trying to deal with compensation cases is a life-changing experience for any MP and their staff. A handful of Members are bearing a disproportionate burden of dealing with what are sometimes very complex and distressing cases, such as when the site of someone’s retirement home is required for the construction of the railway. I am concerned that we strike the right balance with this measure, because I have seen malpractice in the form of pressure being put on my constituents to concede their private properties at prices that they would certainly deem to be below some of the estimates of their true market value.”
“In one case, enormous pressure was put on one of my constituents to concede what he saw as a below-market price for his property, but he was not allowed to make any reference to it before appearing before the Select Committee. Such undue pressure on our constituents has been completely unreasonable. I am concerned about the conclusion that there will be sufficient powers to protect our constituents. Some of the compensation cases are still outstanding. Despite writing to the outgoing chief executive, David Higgins, in August about a particularly difficult ongoing case involving a very vulnerable constituent of mine, which he had promised to expedite, there is still no conclusion to that case in late February 2017.”
Dominic Grieve, another MP along the route did speak, but he only managed to make a poor attempt at a joke, before Keir Starmer did what Siddiq and Huq felt unnecessary, and spoke up for residents in London. Speaking of the recommendation from the Lords committee for a better compensation deal in urban areas, he said
“In response to the Select Committee, the Government accepted the part of the recommendation about households that are subjected to severe and prolonged noise and disturbance, but they did not accept the full recommendation. Other components of the Government’s compensation scheme, which they have stated will provide a fair and proportionate remedy for affected households, are still to be specified and remain completely unknown. It was disappointing that, on Report in the Lords, the Minister responding, Lord Ahmed, had nothing to say on the Government’s position on compensation. I remind the Government of the ongoing obligation to meet my constituents’ very genuine concerns about what the future holds for them in relation to mitigation and compensation for such a prolonged period of construction and its impact on them.”
The one surprise in terms of speakers was that Mark Field, the Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party came out against HS2, saying:
“As an MP in central London, I have had Crossrail going through my constituency in the past decade or so. I have made several hundred enemies by not opposing that scheme, but it is clearly a scheme that is very much in the national interest. I am afraid that that does not apply as much to the rail scheme we are discussing.”
“We should all support large-scale infrastructure projects that are in the national interest, but whether or not this is the right way forward has been far more open to question. The one thing that the Government can do for those many Britons who will be affected by it directly—whether they are in the midlands, further north or, indeed, in central London—is ensure that they keep their interests at the forefront of their mind as and when the building work commences; otherwise, life will be made incredibly difficult for them. We need to do our level best to ensure that, if the national interest is to be served by an infrastructure project, Ministers keep the mitigation of the disruption at the forefront of their minds and that, although the legislative process is coming to an end, this is not the end of those considerations.”
With these and an few other points being made, HS2 was nodded through its’ final hurdle with just 20 MPs present. The full debate can be found here.
Royal Assent is expected on Thursday.