Follow-up inquiry on PHSO investigation into HS2 complaints

Rt. Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP

Follow-up inquiry on PHSO investigation into HS2 complaints

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s (PACAC) enquiry into HS2 complaints and to provide an overview of my and my constituents’ experiences of communicating with HS2 Ltd.  As the Member of Parliament representing the Kenilworth and Southam constituency, I have been engaged with the detail of this project since it was first announced six years ago.

The proposed HS2 route bisects my constituency, entering at its south-eastern corner and leaving at its north-western.  My constituency incorporates three HS2 Community Forum areas.  

Introduction

The comments I make in this paper are based on my own experiences and those of my constituents who have tried to engage with HS2 Ltd, as individuals applying for compensation for example and collectively via their local HS2 Action Groups.  In all cases communication has proven to be lengthy, protracted but primarily very difficult.  The details of the case outlined in the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s (PHSO) report is not untypical of my constituent’s experiences in their dealings with HS2 Ltd and I can provide examples of casework where there has also been poor administration.

The PACAC may be interested to note that I petitioned the HS2 Select Committee on 11th February 2015 and 18th January 2016 where I raised the issue of poor communication with the Committee.  My comments about engaging with HS2 Ltd were extensive in my first petition hearing and I was hopeful there would have been some effort from HS2 Ltd to improve their practices.  I regret that this has not been the case based on feedback I have received from my constituents and through the casework that I continue to receive.  There have been times when I have communicated well with individuals at HS2 Ltd and there have been constructive meetings on how my constituency and constituents are affected but at a corporate level my experience of HS2 Ltd has been one of frustration.

Communication with HS2 Ltd 

The process of engagement and communication with HS2 Ltd started in earnest with the Community Forums.  I must be frank and say that the forums in the areas I represent were not a success.  The meetings were very well attended but the Forums covered too wide an area, and the information that was provided by HS2 Ltd was fairly sparse.  There was a great deal that was taken away from meetings by HS2 Ltd and not an awful lot that was brought back, which was unsatisfactory.  It also caused a great deal of anger for people whose lives are affected by the proposed railway line.

The next phase of engagement was the bilateral meetings, which happened partly at my request because it was clear the Community Forums were not doing the job effectively.  These meetings were more effective, certainly at the outset, but once again it became far too difficult to extract meaningful and detailed information from HS2 Ltd about how the project would be implemented.  That information was (and continues to be) far too long in coming.  

HS2 is having a huge psychological effect on many of those I represent who live in the path of this project.  In some cases constituents initially found out about the scheme from television crews or reading the newspapers.  Since that time, one of the most important things for them has been understanding clearly what the project will mean for them and the flow of information is crucial in that respect.  

Many of my constituents are very knowledgeable about the project, out of necessity and because of their line of work but in many cases where improvements to the line have been suggested, they have been dismissed without much explanation.  Consequently the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee received in excess of 1900 petitions and undertook the huge task of trying to resolve petitioner’s concerns.

It is arguably the case that better provision of information and better communication from HS2 Ltd would have forestalled the need for the Select Committee to hear so many petitions.  I believe it is certainly the case that some of those who appeared may not have needed to do so if the process of engagement beforehand had been more effective.  I am able to provide examples where constituents engaged in negotiations in the corridor outside the Committee in order to ensure their petitions could be brought to a conclusion.  That process of engagement which happened in a relatively short time should and could have happened in a longer time and in a more sensible way well before reaching the Committee.

The ‘corridor deals’ were certainly unsatisfactory in terms of the way in which they put pressure on individual constituents to reach a settlement.

In addition the lack of clear and detailed information from HS2 Ltd has made it much harder for individuals and community groups to make a convincing case for alternative mitigation when petitioning the HS2 Select Committee.  As I have already mentioned many constituents proposed alternative methods for constructing the line, which included additional mitigation.  They needed to understand how much their alternative would cost, compared to what HS2 Ltd had proposed.  It has been extremely difficult for them to do that particularly in relation to proposals for tunnels or deeper cuttings, where information on estimate costings have not been available.  

In one case in which I was asked to intervene, it took more than 18 months after mitigation proposals were formally submitted to HS2 Ltd for them to give a full response on why the proposals had been rejected.  It took my having to write formally to the Managing Director to request the information and even then it was received after their self-imposed deadline.  This was, in my view, profoundly unacceptable and made it extremely difficult for petitioners to do their job effectively; and it is an experience that has been repeated elsewhere.

Furthermore, it is regrettable that some of my constituents have had to resort to submitting Freedom of Information requests to obtain meaningful and detailed information, which should have been made available at the outset.  These requests are time-consuming and should be unnecessary when a major infrastructure project is affecting people’s homes and communities.

I have also received complaints from constituents who have received communications from HS2 Ltd addressed to a deceased relative or to ‘The Owner-Occupier’ when there has already been extensive communication with the named individual.  This poor administration causes great anger and does little to allay the feeling that HS2 Ltd do not care about the people whose lives have been turned upside down by this project.

Similarly, where public consultations have involved constituents having to read large amounts of complex paperwork and technical information before being able to comment on how the proposed line impacts their community and local environment, the short timescales have been completely unrealistic.  Where public consultations have taken place over holiday periods this has proven particularly aggravating.

Looking Ahead

The way in which information is communicated and the way in which communication is done more generally, is highly relevant to the handling of community engagement in the next phases of the project.  In the period leading up to the construction phase, and then during the construction phase itself, it is going to be very important that communication is effective and that the channels of communication are trusted.  There is a lot of work to be done to restore that trust.  HS2 Ltd has put a good deal of emphasis on the Code of Construction Practice and on the local environmental management programme.  The key to success with both of those, will be that process of engagement with the community more broadly.  

Rt. Hon Jeremy Wright QC MP