Promoter's Response to the Select Committee's First Special Report of Session 2015-16
The Department for Transport has released the response of the Promoter of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill, the Secretary of State for Transport, to the First Special Report of the 2015-16 session that was published on the 17th December 2015 by the HS2 Select Committee.
There are a number of points in the response that I should like to highlight here and I have written to Robert Goodwill MP, Minister of State for Transport, to seek further clarification in several areas.
On page 3 of the response, the Promoter states that they will undertake a review of the language in the NTS guidance and consider how to best utilise the suggested wording put forward by the Select Committee. I warmly welcome this guarantee as I am very much aware that constituents in South Northamptonshire have raised concerns that the wording of the guidance is both confusing and off-putting. I should be very interested to see how the Promoter simplifies the guidance to make the Need To Sell scheme more accessible to those affected residents along the proposed line-of-route.
On page 4 of the response, the Promoter has committed to reviewing all outstanding [NTS] cases on a regular basis and will write to any applicants for whom it has taken, or is likely to take, longer than 8 weeks for a decision to be provided. Whilst it is promising that the average time taken for an applicant to receive a decision has been reduced to 6.7 weeks, clearly there are a number of cases which fall well outside this timescale. However I do find the wording confused as the Promoter states that the letter will be sent within the 8 week period with a clear indication of the target date for having a decision sent to the applicant. I query how a letter can be sent within the 8 week period if it has already taken longer than 8 weeks for a decision to be provided and I have written to Robert Goodwill MP to seek clarification on this point.
On page 5 of the response, the Promoter notes the comments of the Select Committee that particular rural locations that are severely affected by construction may need to be addressed by way of special recommendation for certain cases. However there is no further mention of the rural locations in this section of the response and the Promoter focuses instead upon areas proximate to urban construction in particular Camden. I have previously written to the Chair of the HS2 Select Committee, Robert Syms MP, to flag that there are residents in rural locations in South Northamptonshire who are frustrated by HS2 Ltd's lack of engagement and I have raised this point again with Robert Goodwill MP.
On page 7 of the response, the Promoter has undertaken to consider how it might better clarify what evidential requirements relating to financial matters may help support an application. I know that local residents would welcome this clarification and I am grateful to the Promoter for looking into this further as clearly, as the Select Committee noted, in many cases the financial scrutiny is excessively intrusive.
On page 9 of the response, the Promoter has said that HS2 Ltd will ensure the Panel and decision maker are aware of previously successful applications in relation to properties close to the applicant's property. This is sensible and I would hope that it will lend support to the applications of constituents who have been unsuccessful in their approach thus far and are frustrated that neighbouring properties have been sold under NTS. I have always thought this was a common sense approach and, whilst the Promoter still states that close proximity to a property that has been the subject of a successful application is not a guarantee, the decision maker will need to provide clear reasons why such an application would be rejected.
Further down on page 9 of the response, the Promoter states that they are working to implement a revised process for the valuation of properties for NTS that will allow the use of local valuers. I know that the current system has been a significant barrier for residents trying to meet the valuation criteria and I think that everyone would welcome the greater consideration of local market knowledge. Additionally, the Promoter has accepted that a review show be undertaken on the requirement not to have received an offer within 15 per cent of the realistic asking price and I note that there is a commitment to doing so route-wide.
On page 13 in the final paragraph of the response, the Promoter writes that the Parliamentary Ombudsman already has the ability and scope of function to investigate and offer remedy to complainants with respect to the application of the Promoter's discretionary compensation policy. However this is contrary to the experience of several constituents and I have written to both the Ombudsman and Robert Goodwill MP to seek clarification.
HS2 Residents' Commissioner's Third Report
Having now been in post for twelve months Deborah Fazan, the HS2 Residents' Commissioner, has released her report into the progress by HS2 Ltd on the property schemes and the Residents' Charter, both of which were introduced in January 2015.
The Residents' Commissioner's report is available here. As with the response from the Promoter I have highlighted a number of points that are of interest and I have written to the Commissioner for further details on some of the issues she has raised.
The Commissioner notes that HS2 Ltd intends to undertake a broader communication and awareness campaign for the property schemes during 2016. HS2 Ltd's engagement with local residents has been widely accepted as inadequate with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman recently concluding that HS2 Ltd's actions fell below the reasonable standards that the Ombudsman would expect to the point that they constituted maladministration. The Commissioner has recommended that HS2 Ltd should undertake a widespread general information communication of all property schemes as early as possible in 2016 to ensure that all those affected are aware of the availability of the schemes. This is sensible but it is vital that this is further afield than the current communication threshold of 1km of the line of route in rural areas as there are examples of properties whose values are blighted at much greater distances. I have written to the Commissioner for further details on what would constitute such widespread engagement.
I am surprised at the low number of applications to the NTS scheme with only 139 received along the entire line of route. Colleagues have made the point to the Select Committee that this evidently suggests that many people are unaware of the compensation schemes available to them, or are put off because of the complexity and length of the process. The Commissioner states that the average time taken to reach a decision is nearly 8 weeks on average; the DfT response document states that the average time is currently 6.7 weeks. I have therefore written to the Commissioner to seek clarification.
The Commissioner echoes the remarks in the DfT's response that homeowners qualifying for the schemes would prefer to use local valuers, and I am pleased that she supports the proposals to implement this much-needed change to the guidance. She also broadly supports an amendment to the criterion for 'no prior knowledge' of the proposed line of route as any new buyer could not qualify for the schemes if they, in turn, were unable to sell their property other than at a substantially reduced price.
I did note that the Commissioner commented that communities have received HS2 Ltd information events in their area positively. I am sure that those who attended the Brackley information event on the 3rd November would disagree as the feedback that I have received from local residents is that technical experts were not on hand to satisfactorily respond to questions nor had the event been properly advertised outside of the local area. The Commissioner does accept the point that the events are very localised and that those outside the immediate area do not currently have recourse to similar information or engagement. I have written to the Commissioner on this point to ask that future events be much more widely advertised and that HS2 Ltd ensure that appropriate specialists attend the meetings.
Whilst I recognise that the Commissioner is independent, I was surprised that she had not yet had sight of how local engagement is being taken forwards. A detailed community engagement plan has recently been presented to HS2 Ltd's Board and I would have thought it appropriate for the Commissioner to have formally had some input into that process. I look forward to seeing more detail of the proposals and I have asked the Commissioner to send me a copy of the plan once it has been approved by the Board.
I hope that the summaries of the key points from the two documents, as I see them impacting South Northamptonshire, have been useful and that local residents are reassured that I continue to press HS2 Ltd for the delivery of proper compensation and mitigation. As ever, if there is anything arising from these reports that constituents would like to raise with me please do get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org or contact my Parliamentary Assistant, Tommy Gilchrist whom those affected will be familiar with, at email@example.com. Tommy was particularly pleased with the recognition, on page 11 of the Promoter's response, that many parliamentary colleagues have members of staff whose entire time is spent on HS2 issues!