Hard work ahead for HS2 parliamentary committee as 2,000 petitions lodged against new railway

Out-Law News | 30 May 2014 | 4:18 pm | 2 min. read

The parliamentary committee set up to hear objections to the UK's proposed new national high speed railway will "have its work cut out for it", an expert has said, after an initial deadline closed with almost 2,000 petitions submitted.

The petitioning stage for the High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill ('the Hybrid Bill') began on 30 April and ended on 23 May. During this period, 1,925 petitions were received against the Bill by local authorities, private residents and special interest groups, according to the committee which will be responsible for hearing these petitions.

The legislation takes the form of a 'hybrid' bill, which is one that features elements of both a public and a private bill. As the Bill contains compulsory purchase powers and other provisions affecting particular private interests, as well as dealing with a matter of public policy generally, those who are 'specially and directly affected' by it have the opportunity to petition against it and have their concerns heard by a special select committee.

Robbie Owen, a major infrastructure planning law expert and 'Roll A' parliamentary agent, said that the huge volume of petitions made it extremely unlikely that the HS2 legislation would receive final approval before the end of 2016. 'Roll A' parliamentary agents act for the promoters of and petitioners against private and local legislation in the UK parliament, including hybrid bills. There are currently only 13 practising Roll A parliamentary agents in the UK.

"The equivalent House of Commons select committee on the Crossrail Bill – the last hybrid bill before this one – was in existence for some 22 months, and so it's clear that the HS2 Select Committee has its work cut out for it, especially bearing in mind that HS2 is much more controversial than Crossrail and it is looking like there are about twice as many petitioners," Owen said.

"The government will try to reach agreements with some petitioners but others will be asking the committee to require minor route changes and other alterations to the Bill. The committee cannot, however, do anything that goes against the principle of HS2, which includes its broad route alignment and the proposed stations," he said.

"Quite apart from changes that the government is already working on, such as those relating to Euston Station, which will involve Additional Provisions (APs) to the Bill, the Select Committee can also be expected to make their own requirements for other APs. Whether brought forward by the government voluntarily or required by the committee, APs have to go through a process in order to be added to the Bill, which includes a petitioning opportunity as well. All of this means that the Bill cannot hope to complete its passage through parliament until towards the end of 2016 at the earliest, especially as there will be a repeat of the process in the House of Lords," he said.

Once the Hybrid Bill completes its parliamentary passage it will give the government powers to construct and operate the first phase of the proposed line, between London and the Birmingham, which is due for completion in 2026. A future second phase is planned to connect the line to Manchester, Leeds and Heathrow Airport by 2033. The combined cost of both phases of the project is currently estimated at £42.6 billion, of which £14.56bn is contingency; with an additional £7.5bn for rolling stock.

The select committee consists of six MPs including chair and Conservative MP for Dorset Robert Syms. It has been given the power to make amendments to the Hybrid Bill provided that these do not go against its 'principle'. This has been broadly defined as for "the provision of a high speed railway between Euston and a junction with the West Coast Main Line at Handsacre in Staffordshire, with a spur from Water Orton in Warwickshire to Curzon Street in Birmingham and intermediate stations at Old Oak Common and Birmingham Interchange"; as well as "the 'broad route alignment' of the railway set out on the plans".