HS2: Leaves on the line

Bad news for HS2 yesterday, as the Commons Standing Orders Committee delivered a ruling which adds a few weeks delay to the bill to authorise the controversial rail scheme.

It was quite an unusual proceeding - the committee has not sat since 2008, which means none of the MPs who served on it had done so before.

Their job was to rule on a series of breaches in the consultation rules for this kind of bill, which will in effect grant planning permission for HS2 and allow compulsory purchase of land along the route.

To give an idea of the scale of the consultation exercise, it involves more than 50,000 pages of documentation, covering issues like environmental impact, impact on existing planning permissions and archaeology - and one of the big problems was that 877 pages were missing from the environmental statement, which meant that, since the document was incomplete, it was not fully available to the public by the deadline laid down in Commons rules.

There were other problems too.

The rules require notices beside highways that will be affected by the scheme - but these include some private roads where the landlord refused permission to put them up, and motorway slip-roads, where it would be illegal to post them.

That last point led Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds to ask if the Standing Orders predated the motorway network (they did... but they have been amended a bit, since) and there were a few jovial quips about horseless carriages.

Then there were the rules on documenting the impact on water pipes; if the rules covered even the most minor pipes, they would be impossible to implement.

The Parliamentary Agent for HS2 - the specialist lawyer guiding the bill through Parliament, Alison Gorlov*, took the committee through the breaches, case by case.

Sometimes the problem was that the rules were obsolete - surveys had to be based on Ordinance Survey benchmarks, but the OS had ceased to maintain them in 1972, and they'd used GPS and local fixed reference points instead - sometimes parts of documents had been published in electronic, but not paper form… the list ran on for a couple of hours.

In most cases Team HS2 argued the problems were minor and would not have impeded the consultation - prompting committee member Charles Walker to observe "you would say that, wouldn't you?"

The submission of the transport secretary, relayed to the committee, was that there should not be any procedural consequences.

The upshot was that the committee - whose job is to ensure due process is followed - ruled that the closure date for the HS2 consultation should be put back for 17 days.

Not exactly earth-shaking, you might think, but the timetable for getting the bill into law by the next election was already looking extremely tight.

The rules require a minimum of 28 days to process the responses to the consultation which can range from postcards from a campaign group to very detailed submissions, followed by a minimum of 14 days before the bill can be debated at Second Reading.

With this ruling, the earliest possible date for a second reading of the Bill is March 27th… and that relies on the assessors, private consultants whose job is to report on the outcome of the consultation process, dealing with tens of thousands of submissions, pretty much at the speed of light.

In practice it looks pretty likely that the bill won't now get that second reading until after the Easter Recess - after which there will be about three weeks in which people can petition a committee of MPs on detailed matters to do with the scheme (not on the general principle, because if the Commons votes yes at second reading they have approved HS2 in principle).

At this point the cognoscenti will be looking very carefully at a procedural motion, the instructions to the committee, which will doubtless be configured to ensure a brisk pace is maintained.

Getting the bill past second reading at least minimises the uncertainty for those along the route - and if the general election did intrude before the bill was passed into law, it could be picked up again and finished off pretty rapidly, in the new parliament - as long as whatever majority was then in charge was minded to do so.

I'm not sure there would be any vast engineering implications from any delay - I suspect the main issue is ensuring that HS2 is not too live an issue when the voters go to the polls.

* Alison Gorlov is, I'm told, the first ever female parliamentary agent - and the then Speaker, George Thomas, had to be consulted over her appointment, because the Standing Orders assumed they could only be male.