UK: How Parliament Will Examine HS2

Last Updated: 15 July 2013
Article by Laura Thornton

The High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill (the 'Paving Bill') received its second reading last Wednesday, 26 June. This was an opportunity for debate of the principle of this Bill. In this case, it was certainly a lively debate. You can read the text of the debate in Hansard and we will be blogging about it here shortly.

This blog post focuses on 'what happened next' as, immediately following the debate, two programme motions were put to the house for vote. Both motions proposed changes to the Private Business Standing Orders. These standing orders govern the process by which the private aspects of a hybrid bill (and private bills, generally) pass through Parliament.

The first motion concerned the examination of the environmental statement

When it was announced that HS2 would be consented by way of a hybrid bill, there was some criticism that this process does not comply with the requirements of the EU Directive on Environmental Impact Assessments. This Directive, as amended by the Public Participation Directive, requires that the public have an opportunity to comment on the environmental statement (ES) before a decision is taken on the principle of the bill.

The ES is a key document in any large infrastructure project as it assesses the expected environmental impacts of the proposals and sets out the mitigation measures the promoters intend to put in place to address any negative impacts identified. A draft of the ES is currently the subject of a consultation, scheduled to end next Thursday, 11 July.

If no change were made to the current standing orders, it would not be possible to raise comments on the ES until the petitioning stage, i.e. after the principle that there will be a high speed rail link has been decided.

The motion proposed allows the following process for comments on the ES:

  • The public have (at least) 56 days from the deposit of the ES to submit written comments
  • Comments will be published alongside a summary by an independent assessor
  • An independent assessor reports on those comments to the Examiner of Petitions for Private Bills
  • The second reading of the bill must be more than 14 days after the assessor has reported

As plans for HS2 develop, it may be necessary for further environmental information to be submitted. This additional information would have a similar process, with a minimum 42 day period for public comments with at least 14 days elapsing between the independent assessor's report and third reading of the bill.
The motion also introduces a requirement for the minister to set out the main mitigation measures to offset any adverse effects at third reading.

Debate on this measure considered whether 56 days is a reasonable period for consideration of the ES. As the previous government had set a standard period of 12 weeks for government consultation, the contraction of this to 8 weeks by the present government was criticised by some members. The equivalent period under the Planning Act 2008 regime is 28 days which, while tight, has been achieved in respect of other large projects including Hinkley Point C and the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Despite the concerns raised, the motion was made.

The implications of change are that it will be next to impossible for the government to meet its proposed timeline for the Bill to be deposited by the end of 2013 and passed within this Parliament as it means 56+28+14=98 days' minimum between first and second reading. Even if the Bill were deposited on Monday 2 December, the second reading could not be before 10 March 2014, and even if the Committee stage started the next week, there are only 59 weeks before the end of the current Parliament. The Committee stage alone for the Crossrail Act 2008 lasted 97 weeks in the Commons and a further 11 weeks in the Lords.

The second motion enables documents to be deposited electronically

Ordinarily, the standing orders require a large number of documents (including the ES) to be deposited in hard copy in every local authority area along the route. The ES is expected to reach 50,000 pages and as the current route passes through 20 different local authority areas, 1 million pages of paper would be required to comply with this. By way of comparison, the ES for the Crossrail Act 2008, the last hybrid bill, was just 2,700 pages.

The change to the standing orders permits the ES and other documents to be deposited electronically to save (a few more) trees. The requirement for hard copies to be deposited in both houses of Parliament remains.

It has been suggested that this change will also make the documents more conveniently accessible to the public, although of course there was nothing to stop them being published electronically as well as in hard copy.

Interestingly, there is no parallel proposal for material produced by those petitioning against the bill, or indeed any of the paperwork created within Parliament to be digitised. As every petitioner is required to submit no less than 12 copies of their petition, an opportunity to further reduce this particular environmental impact of HS2 has perhaps been missed.

Subject to confirmation that some key documents, such as the Bill itself, maps and the non-technical summary of the ES will be available in hard copy, this motion was welcomed by MPs and was made.

Together these motions update the process by which hybrid bills are passed. The proof of their success will unfold in the coming months.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Laura Thornton
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