"Overwhelming" support for HS2 in House of Commons as Hybrid Bill passes to committee for further consideration

Out-Law News | 30 Apr 2014 | 9:46 am | 3 min. read

All three main UK political parties have indicated their "full commitment" to the proposed new high speed rail line between London and the Midlands and North of England, an expert has said, after the second reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill was backed by a majority of 411 MPs.

Patrick Twist of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, described the "overwhelming" majority as a "political 'spade in the ground' that signals the start of what will surely be the largest infrastructure project of the next half century". The bill now moves into its committee stage, where a specially-appointed committee of MPs will meet to consider the detail of the bill and any petitions against the legislation from parties that will be affected by the project.

"There are sure to be changes to the project coming out of the committee which will both enhance the project and assuredly use up a substantial part of the £14.4 billion contingency which has been set aside for it," Twist said. "Concerned residents whose properties are close to the line will have the opportunity to press for enhanced mitigation measures and the local authorities will seek to ensure that the stations are built to high architectural standards and are not simply concrete boxes."

"Opponents are continuing to pursue legal challenges to the process approving HS2, but the approach of the courts - including up to the Supreme Court - in dismissing earlier judicial review applications does not suggest that legal challenges will materially delay the process. HS2 Ltd has provided for royal assent on the bill to be received by Q4 2016 to allow construction to start in 2017 - it's up to the DfT and parliament to ensure that happens," he said.

Once the High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill completes its parliamentary passage, the legislation will give the government powers to construct and operate the line. Twist said that it was now widely accepted that the approval process for the bill would "run over the election and into the next parliament".

The bill takes the form of a 'hybrid' bill, which is one that features elements of both a public and a private bill and 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. Proposed instructions to the select committee that will be appointed to hear petitions limit these to petitions against the detail, rather than the principle, of the bill. Local authorities excluding parish councils and businesses will have from 29 April to 16 May to present petitions, while the window for "any other person or body" will run from 29 April until 23 May.

"The outcome of today's debates in parliament will be key to establish the framework for the closer scrutiny that will now be given to the bill proposals by the select committee," said Francis Tyrrell, an expert in planning for major infrastructure at Pinsent Masons.

"For example, the government has drafted an instruction to the select committee which would prevent it from considering the previously proposed link between HS1 and HS2, which the government has now removed, following Sir David Higgins' review. However, amendments have been tabled which would allow the select committee to consider the question of such a link," he said.

Under current plans, HS2 is to be built in two stages at a combined cost of £42.6bn, much of which is contingency. The initial London to Birmingham section of the line is due for completion in 2026 while a proposed second phase, connecting the line to Manchester, Leeds and Heathrow Airport, would follow by 2033.

Addressing the House of Commons ahead of the second reading debate, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that he understood the "depth of concern" that the line had caused to residents and local authorities along the route. The government is currently consulting on an enhanced property compensation package for those affected by the proposals, and consultation on a "more generous" need-to-sell scheme would follow shortly, he said.

"I have made it clear to my officials that there is no place in the Department or in HS2 for talk of luddites or nimbys," he said. "We must respect people and try to meet their concerns."

"I believe that the Bill before us ... has the power to change our nation profoundly and for the better. Yes, HS2 is ambitious; yes, it will take a great deal of investment; yes, it will take time to complete – but so did the canals, the railways and motorways that previous generations left as their legacy. Our age can achieve something just as great," he said.