HS2 opponents prepare for battle

There is a good chance of a significant rebellion against the planned high-speed rail line (HS2) from Conservative backbenchers, when the Commons returns on April 28th.

With the hot breath of Ukip on their necks (one Conservative MP is helpfully reproducing on his website Ukip's 2010 manifesto commitment to a high speed rail network) a number of MPs may feel the need to signal to their constituents that they're against, and with Labour supporting HS2, they can do so without fear of a government defeat.

The Conservative whips are probably philosophical about the prospect of many months, possibly years, of friendly fire from the irreconcilables on their benches - and with that Labour support behind them, they can afford to be.

But they should be ready to fight the first guerrilla actions the day after the second reading vote on the HS2 Bill.

Four hours have been set aside on Tuesday 29th, to debate procedural issues around the bill - and remember this will be a parliamentary marathon almost certainly extending beyond the 2015 General Election.

First there is a long motion appointing the members of the Bill Committee who'll be tasked with hearing the petitions of people affected by the HS2 scheme, and setting out how the bill will be carried forward into the 2014-15 parliamentary year.

The six MPs (Henry Bellingham, Sir Peter Bottomley, Ian Mearns, Yasmin Qureshi, Robert Syms and Mike Thornton) will have to field thousands of issues around compensation, environmental impact and details of the route. In effect they will be in charge of the process of buying off objectors

The motion details what will happen if the election intervenes before their deliberations are complete - effectively the next Parliament will be able to pick up where they have left off - and runs through what look like pretty standard rules of engagement for this type of bill.

But then we have the first of several interventions by HS2's arch opponent, the former Cabinet Minister, Cheryl Gillan. She has a series of amendments to the instructions to the Bill Committee.

One forecloses the option of adding an extra member to it, presumably to top up the government majority if the committee goes off-piste. Another would require the quorum to be four members, not the usual three - I imagine the justification is that potentially far-reaching decisions on a £50 billion scheme should not be taken by half a committee, but it could also have the effect of slowing things down, if some of the MPs had difficulty making every meeting.

She has also put down amendments allowing greater flexibility on the compensation that can be offered to people affected by the scheme (the government is consulting on proposals for compensation at the moment) and that may allow the idea of Property Bonds, a novel compensation mechanism, to be revisited.

Interestingly, the new Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom is one of the most enthusiastic advocates of this idea, so will her elevation to government encourage her colleagues to take another look?

Perhaps most crucial of all is an amendment arguing that the "broad route" for HS2 shall include all alternative routes for the line.

It is worth remembering that in the 90s, the Bill Committee considering HS1 - otherwise known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - did in the end decide that the original route proposed was simply not viable, and recommended a completely different line.

If passed, this amendment would open up the possibility of something similar.

Finally, there is an amendment from the MPs on the Environmental Audit Select Committee, requiring a report back to the House on petitions against the Bill on environmental issues, after their report on the scheme recommended that Parliament, as the planning authority for HS2, should ensure that everything possible is done to minimise damage to ancient woodlands and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

While all three main parties in the Commons are committed to HS2 in principle, that does not rule out the possibility that they could support one or more of these amendments - so if there is any danger of a government defeat on HS2, this is where it would be.

One minor side issue is who will select the amendments for debate? Mr Speaker Bercow's Buckingham constituency is one of those affected by HS2 and he may have to recuse himself, and leave the choice to one of his deputies.

In any event there is no real danger of the Bill being derailed; it's moment of greatest danger will come after the next election (when the Bill will still be making its way through Parliament), when the next Government will have to consider whether it wants to continue with such a massive and long-term commitment.