Hybrid bill petitioning procedure should be modernised, says High Speed 2 committee

Out-Law News | 25 Feb 2016 | 5:07 pm | 3 min. read

The process through which those "directly and specially affected" are able to challenge proposed major infrastructure projects needs to be modernised, a committee of MPs has said.

In particular the committee, which has spent the past two years hearing challenges to planned national higher speed rail line High Speed 2 (HS2), has recommended  that "strong guidelines" be drawn up setting out who is entitled to petition before the process starts. These guidelines should provide examples of petitions likely to be challenged by the authorities, and examples of petitions that will "almost certainly" not be successful, according to its report (113-page / 4MB PDF).

"If some believe that there is a democratic right for everyone who wants to show up to have their say to repeat issues for as long as it takes, they are wrong," it said. "Such a conception does not serve the democratic process."

"Although the number of petitions deposited against the HS2 Phase One Bill did not break records … we have broken records with the number of petitions we have heard and with the committee's number of sitting days. We do not believe that spending nearly two years on this process is sensible or sustainable in terms of recruitment of future hybrid bill committee members. Nor is it necessary or indeed helpful to petitioners," it said.

Any new petitioning system should "almost certainly be electronic" while still retaining "safeguards" to prevent speculative or spurious petitions, the committee said. It should also allow for "limited" amendments without the need for petitioners to present a whole new petition. The "somewhat Victorian language" used should be modernised to make the process more "inclusive", while fees to present petitions should be retained, the cross-party High Speed Rail Committee said.

The committee heard nearly 1,600 petitions against the High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill over 160 days, according to its final report. It has now recommended a number of amendments to the project and to the government's compensation scheme for those affected, as well as its more general recommendations in relation to the 'hybrid bill' process.

Infrastructure and planning expert Francis Tyrrell of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that any changes made to the process as a result of the committee's recommendations could make the process "quicker and more efficient in future".

"Any such changes will be useful to forthcoming proposed schemes such as Crossrail 2 across London and the extensions of HS2 north to Manchester and Leeds," he said.

"Although more modern processes are available to authorise major infrastructure processes such as these, the government has shown a preference for using the parliamentary process, which is arguably more accessible to the public. As such, streamlining and updating this currently arduous process which still largely owes a lot to its Victorian heyday is welcome and will be crucial in prompting a more efficient process for many large-scale infrastructure projects, to the benefit of all involved," he said.

A hybrid bill is one that features elements of both a public and a private bill, and which gives those affected by the proposals the opportunity to petition parliament with their concerns and have their case heard by a special committee of MPs. In this case, challenges were limited to those on the specific provisions of the bill, and not the "principle" of it.

The committee has recommended a longer bored tunnel under the Chilterns to run to South Heath in the North, greater noise protection at Wendover in Buckinghamshire and "better construction arrangements" at Hillingdon, west London to reflect concerns raised by petitioners. A planned maintenance depot at Washwood Heath in Birmingham should be "remodelled" in order to maximise local job opportunities, and the planned compensation schemes should be amended "with a view toward greater fairness and a more functional property market" in areas along the route.

The hybrid bill will give the government powers to construct and operate the first phase of the project between London and Birmingham, which is currently due for completion in 2026. A proposed 'Phase 2a' between Birmingham and a new transport hub at Crewe, as well as the final extension of the line to Manchester and Leeds which is planned for 2033, will each require a separate hybrid bill under current plans.

The 'phase one' hybrid bill will now return to parliament, where it is due to return to the House of Commons. The government's Department for Transport (DfT) is expected to respond to the committee's report. It will publish a statement setting out the main reasons why parliament will be invited to consent to the bill and the main measures that will be introduced to minimise adverse effects "at least seven days" before its third reading in the House of Commons.