Infrastructure planning and government affairs expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the Government had applied to prevent 24 of almost 2,000 petitioners against the HS2 Hybrid Bill from presenting their concerns to a specially-convened House of Commons select committee, whose hearings started this week. This was on the grounds that they were not "directly or specially affected" by the proposals, according to the rules of the hybrid bill petitioning process, he said.
"It's a perfectly proper part of the hybrid bill process, but you do wonder why they have done it," said Owen, who is one of only 13 practising 'Roll A' parliamentary agents in the UK and able to act for the promoters of and petitioners against private and hybrid bills.
"Clearly if the Government can get rid of [campaigning groups HS2 Action Alliance, Stop HS2 and the Campaign for Better Public Transport] in particular, they will remove three quite large thorns from their side. But I question the judgement made as the challenges relate to just 1% of all petitions deposited, risk alienating large swathes of the public from the bill process and even members of the committee, and undermine the claims that it's a process that fully and fairly involves all affected communities," he said.
The High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill ('Hybrid Bill') select committee hearings began on 1 July. The committee will be responsible for hearing up to 1,917 petitions received against the Bill by local authorities, businesses, private residents and special interest groups. Those who are "directly and specially affected" by hybrid bills, which feature elements of both public and private bills, are entitled to bring petitions against them.
If the Hybrid Bill is passed by parliament it will give the government powers to construct and operate the first phase of HS2, between London and the West Midlands, 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 is chaired by Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Dorset, and consists of six MPs in total. 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".
In a statement, the Department for Transport (DfT) said that parliament was "clear that a campaign group which is not composed of individuals directly and specially affected, but which simply opposes the principle of the Bill, cannot petition".
The committee's decisions on the government's 24 challenges to the petitioners' hearings (1-page / 93KB PDF) are expected later this month.