Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise, in what will be a slightly lengthened Adjournment debate, the subject of the effectiveness of communication and engagement by HS2 Ltd.
I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. I think this is the first time he has had the joy of responding to a debate on HS2 that I have secured. I hope that he will be in his place for many years to come to respond to future such debates. I have great hopes that his response will be full and encouraging, both to my constituents and to many others up and down the line of phase 1 of HS2.
I thank Buckinghamshire County Council and my local parish councils in particular for their input into the debate, for their perseverance and for their work for greater mitigation in our area; I extend those thanks to local authorities up and down the line, which have worked tirelessly to try to mitigate the damage to their areas.
I am one of the few MPs along the route of phase 1 with the privilege of the freedom of the Back Benches to speak on these matters. It would be remiss of me not to thank my colleagues up and down the line who have had an input into the debate. I pay particular tribute to their researchers, who do so much work on HS2. The burden has fallen disproportionately on our offices as MPs. Although she has absolutely no idea that I am going to do so, I pay tribute to Kate Fairhurst in my office, who has done tremendous work in co-ordinating and working on this subject for a long time.
I am particularly disappointed still to be facing the prospect of having to raise the quality and standard of HS2’s communications and engagement, which have made this project a very difficult one for my constituents in Chesham and Amersham in particular. They have found it difficult to deal with in the past, and I am afraid it still fills them with dread for the years to come.
It would be unfair if I did not recognise some of the efforts that HS2 Ltd has made recently to try to improve its communications. Indeed, it has done so in some instances—for example, the introduction of local engagement managers. But that is too little, too late, and must be set against the background of the scars of communications in previous years, which have left a deep-rooted history of poor engagement along phase 1.
It is fair to say that that has resulted in an atmosphere of mistrust among many of our constituents, up and down the line, along with a great feeling that there is a complete lack of empathy from HS2 Ltd and the people who work for it. In the words of one of my constituents, its
“record is poor and they have been talking about more engagement for months, but for the local affected resident at the coalface, it’s hard to spot any change”.
I understand that that view is replicated in the constituencies of many of my affected colleagues. For an organisation with such an enormous operation and rapidly expanding workforce, I think the Minister would agree that this is unacceptable and requires addressing with senior personnel and at ministerial level.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) recently wrote to the chairman of HS2 Ltd to convey her concern that her constituents were not being adequately communicated with, ahead of their petitions to the House of Lords Select Committee. That caused undue frustration. She asked me to introduce that into my speech this evening, because she is at an HS2 meeting herself and is unable to be here.
In the course of preparing for this debate, I have been contacted by Chalfont St Giles parish council, which reports that HS2’s original attempts at engagement, in the form of focus groups, did little to allay the fears of the local population. It was felt that they were entirely controlled by HS2. The council felt that the community events were designed to promote the project, rather than to engage effectively with those who were most affected. It reported to me that HS2 personnel seemed uninterested in tapping into the wealth of local knowledge, which could have helped HS2’s work hugely, in places such as Chalfont St Giles. This point is echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, who feels that more positive solutions could have been generated if HS2 had just listened and utilised local expertise.
I do not know whether the Minister has had the chance to study the design panel for HS2. It is full of the great and the good, with some marvellous members, including leading stars in the worlds of architecture and design. However, what is not as obvious is the local input that we were promised. We were promised that the design of this project would rely on local input to help to get the best possible solutions in areas as the line goes through them.
I think it is fair to say that the earlier community forums are considered to have been disastrous. Great Missenden parish council felt the engagement was part of a tick-box exercise by HS2, which was unable to provide the detail that residents and constituents want. Residents tell me that they think HS2 is going through the motions during community engagement. That is not good enough. For them to come out of the community engagements thinking that it was a one-way-only, top-down discussion, reflects very badly on the quality, content, thought and input that goes into them. The situation was summed up in a recent comment by a parish councillor in Great Missenden:
“The parishioners have no real knowledge of what is happening; in fact, most still believe that HS2 will not happen. This is not democratic. In fact, it is bordering on a dictatorship.”
It is sad that after six or seven years that is how residents feel following an attempt at engagement with the community.
This poor engagement will continue to cause problems with the progress of HS2’s work. As I understand it, there was a fracas at Fairford Leys recently, when HS2 omitted fully to communicate to residents that it would be accessing a site for groundworks. I am told that households were leafleted only after the work had commenced.
I am very pleased to see the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), in his place. I know he shares my concern that this kind of incident is a very worrying precedent for the future. I ask the Minister to familiarise himself with these interactions and to seek improvement. This sort of work is going to multiply and increase dramatically in the coming months. I do not want to see any repeat of this type of incident, which actually comes from poor communication.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) became so exasperated with HS2 Ltd’s poor communication that she personally delivered more than 1,000 leaflets explaining to residents in Brent how the construction of a vent shaft would affect their homes. It really is a sad indictment when a hard-pressed, stretched Member of Parliament has to do the job of an organisation in receipt of such vast sums of taxpayers’ money and do the communications on behalf of the project.
Construction is due to begin next year, as the Minister will know. Not only are construction timetables not yet available to residents, but the newly appointed construction commissioner will apparently be unable to intervene in individual cases. The newly appointed, interim construction commissioner came to see me in my office. I have to say that I still question his independence, particularly when I am told that any correspondence should be sent to HS2’s office. That hardly gives the impression that that commissioner is totally independent from HS2. I said to him—and I think this is fair—that my constituents and others deserve to be informed of what is happening well in advance of construction works. At the moment, if they want to find out anything, they have to ring an HS2 helpdesk, and they have no information about who exactly they are dealing with and no named person to deal with. HS2 can honestly be said to have not taken a proactive approach to engagement with the community, but is relying on a reactive strategy, putting the onus on the very people who are adversely affected by the plans.
To pursue this issue, I have invited the construction commissioner to attend the HS2 compensation and mitigation forum, a group in the House that was founded by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) back in 2012. I hope the construction commissioner will come to our next meeting in a few weeks’ time and reassure us that communication on construction matters, not least with MPs and their offices but also with our constituents, will be a priority. I would like to ask the Minister now whether he will talk with the newly appointed, interim independent construction commissioner and try to ensure that when he arrives at that meeting he has more to tell us that we can pass on to our constituents than when he first came for his courtesy call on me last week.
When there is one commissioner, another commissioner always comes along, and in this case it is the residents commissioner. We all welcomed the appointment of the residents commissioner last year, who we thought was there to assist specifically with communication. I have met her several times. I have to say that she is a thoroughly nice woman and I am always encouraged by her intentions. However, the reality is that the impact is very low. First, the Minister should be aware that she, too, does not appear to be independent. She reports to the HS2 chairman, she is paid by HS2 Ltd and she sits in its offices. Again, that does not strike me as an independent operation. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority certainly does not sit in the House of Commons, but instead sits down the road and is truly seen to be independent. It is nothing to do with MPs, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker; in fact, it seeks to regulate what MPs do in their expenses.
Secondly, the residents commissioner only makes recommendations to the chairman. They are in no way enforceable. That seems to me to be pretty weak and to lack teeth. Thirdly, she cannot intervene in individual cases either, which prompts the ongoing question of who my constituents can go to when problems arise. Of course, they go to their MP, and, as we have heard, when MPs have to distribute leaflets with information about a Government project, their offices become only too hard pressed and the burden that disproportionately falls upon them becomes quite tremendous.
The result is a lack of confidence. Residents along the line do not have the confidence that the residents commissioner is a credible independent figure, and thus her role to scrutinise HS2’s communications has, I believe, so far been pretty ineffective. I stress that it is no reflection on her individually. The problem comes from the job and the description that has been given to her and from the approach that HS2 has to this project, which has always been, “We’re doing it whatever; we have the mandate to do it, and you are just getting in the way.” That is the message that has come across to our constituents. When it comes to those two commissioners, it is fair to say that constituents feel that all roads lead to HS2, which is effectively both judge and jury in all circumstances.
I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to read it, but in March this year the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on which I happen to sit, produced a report on HS2’s communications, following the damning report on its communications by the parliamentary and health services ombudsman. The ombudsman determined that HS2’s actions towards a community in Staffordshire had constituted maladministration. The Committee concluded that “the necessary fundamental changes” had not taken place, and that
“the continuing existence of a culture of defensive communication and misinformation within a public body, responsible for the delivery of such a large and highly controversial project, is not acceptable”.
I think you would agree with me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that that is not acceptable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) has been working alongside Jonathan and Elaine Loescher and the wider community at the heart of the ombudsman’s report for some time now, and in spite of them receiving an apology by HS2 Ltd, the Loeschers have contacted me—and I have been in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth—to say that very little has changed in practice. HS2 Ltd’s treatment of residents remains poor; it simply does not prioritise community engagement. In fact, there is no one to hold its feet to the fire or to ensure that HS2 Ltd fulfils its responsibilities to residents. Sometimes it feels as if I am the only person holding its feet to the fire on many issues.
I do not know whether the Minister is aware of it, but only a couple of weeks ago, HS2 advertised for four newly qualified graduates to work for six months, at salaries up to approximately £30,000—I am quoting from the advert—to “write the story” of HS2. I have been a Minister, and it sounds to me that the record-keeping in the Department and in HS2 Ltd is so poor that they do not know how they have got to where they have got to, so they are bringing people in to do some forensic analysis to try to dig out the policy. Frankly, that is not good enough, and it reflects some of the chaos that I see from the outside as being evidence of what is happening in the organisation.
Ultimately, the two commissioners—the construction commissioner and the residents commissioner—have been put in place to hold HS2 to account, and I do not think that the drafting of those jobs and the way in which their remit will operate in each case is going to fit into the Bill. I know that I bang on a bit about HS2 from time to time, but I and others have put considerable thought into the amendments tabled to the Bill, which is currently in the House of Lords.
My right hon. Friend may well bang on and on, but she has many admirers in this place for doing so on such an important issue. My constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) are going to be affected by phase 2a, so I encourage her to go on banging on.
I am grateful for the break in proceedings and for that kind intervention by my hon. Friend. As I have said before, it is never possible to over-flatter a politician! I feel passionately about this issue, as do many others, and if I have the freedom to speak, I am very happy to reflect the views of others. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) has himself worked very hard on trying to mitigate this scheme. In fact, I am now alongside two Staffordshire Members. I am second to none in my admiration for the support that I have had from my colleagues who, I think, feel as strongly as I do.
At the time of Third Reading, I tabled amendments proposing the introduction of an adjudicator—an independent regulatory body that could deal with complaints swiftly and fairly. People who are affected by the scheme would have confidence and faith in such a body, and I think that it is still badly needed. I urge the Minister to think about the amendments again before Royal Assent, to accept them and to try to create a body that would give confidence and faith to the people who are being so badly affected.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is aware, we have a serious problem in our part of Staffordshire. What my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) is suggesting would help enormously to deal with the frequent complaints about the manner in which HS2 Ltd is operating, which is causing local people enormous anxiety. I shall be seeing some of them over the weekend to discuss these very questions. I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend, and totally endorse her proposal.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. We spent some time drafting the amendments, and some serious and senior legal brains were brought to bear. The Minister is new to his post, so he might not be as familiar with this project as the rest of us, and this would be a good opportunity for him to review my proposal. Then at least I would feel that it had been examined and considered before being rejected, whereas at the moment I feel that the proposal was rejected out of hand because it came from someone whose constituency was affected so badly by the scheme.
I am astounded by the lack of information that HS2 Ltd has about communications. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to look at the answers that have been supplied to my written questions over the past fortnight. In preparation for the debate, I asked for the annual budgets for communication and engagement by HS2 Ltd since 2010. The response stated that the figures could not be provided, as
“the amount of time spent on communication and engagement activity is not centrally tracked.”
I am astounded that, in spite of all the external criticism and scrutiny of its poor communications, HS2 Ltd is not even keeping track of what it is spending, how it is spending, and who is doing what.
The cost of HS2 started at £30 billion, then rose to £50 billion, and is now increasing further. According to the latest estimates from all the experts, it is rising exponentially. One can imagine that it might end up being £80 billion or even more, in which case it would cost more than Hinkley Point, the Heathrow development and a development at Gatwick, if that were also to take place. We are talking about a payment of massive sums for what many people regard as a badly thought out project that will cause a great deal of anxiety and trouble.
It is a case of the three Hs: Hinkley, Heathrow, and HS2; and the greatest of them all is HS2. The Minister has probably heard me say this before, but I still think that the project is so gargantuan that it deserves to be overseen by a dedicated Minister who would keep an eye on it. A sum of £80 billion is larger than the budgets of many Departments of State. It is absurd to think that five Secretaries of State and as many Ministers have overseen this project over a comparatively short period. The lack of continuity is ridiculous. Now we have lost the chief executive, of course, who is going to Rolls-Royce. We have an interim chief executive—Mr Hill, I believe—who comes from CH2M, which has just received a bonus from HS2 for some of its works, and I believe is still in the running to bid for contracts. The arm’s length relationship with contractors does not seem to have been maintained in the current circumstances.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire asked me to raise particular communications flaws in the need-to-sell scheme. Apparently, constituents still find it difficult to speak to a named lead on their case and cannot retrieve information from HS2 Ltd until they have made an application. On Tuesday, in reply to a written question inquiring about the effectiveness of the scheme, the responding Minister told me that it was operating fairly and as intended. That is certainly not reflected in my right hon. Friend’s remarks to me, so that is worth looking into. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that.
I will not go into the inadequacy of the legislative process through which the HS2 Bill is being put through this House and the House of Lords. That is a matter for another time but, needless to say, the process itself causes a great deal of confusion and consternation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) raised with me the excellent point that better communication and provision of information would have negated the need for the House of Commons Select Committee to hear so many petitions. Constructive engagement beforehand could have promoted a dialogue away from the Committee Room, and thus speeded up the passage of the Bill. I think that people felt the only way they could communicate with HS2 Ltd was by depositing a petition and coming along in person to make their case.
I also wish to highlight the poor practice of corridor deals during the Select Committee process. The relocation of the construction haul road in Great Missenden in my constituency was agreed in principle between Buckinghamshire County Council and HS2 Ltd in such a deal. The promise by the promoter altered the evidence given thereafter in Committee and, as it stands, the pledge has not been fulfilled.
The nature of these corridor deals means that vital discussions are not transparent and assurances cannot be enforced. In this case, my constituents feel they are left in a very uncertain and unclear position as to HS2’s intentions towards a traffic management plan that will have an enormous local impact at Great Missenden.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam also asked me to raise the unsatisfactory fact that constituents need to resort to submitting freedom of information requests to obtain meaningful and detailed information. Once again, such information should have been available from HS2 Ltd at the outset, and it is a great shame that it does not display greater transparency. It must understand that I, as an MP—I think I am speaking for my hon. Friends in the Chamber with an interest in the matter—have always approached this on a twin-track basis. If I could not persuade the Government that this was not the scheme in the right place at the right time, and going to the right places, I would be working hard to mitigate its effect on my constituency, and especially on the area of outstanding natural beauty. However, it always seems to me that HS2 thinks that MPs are working against it, yet if this scheme is going to go through, we will have to accept that, but we need to work with HS2 to improve the outcomes for the people we represent.
Phase 2a has not reached Parliament yet, but the effects of blight are felt by my constituents, as they are by those of my hon. Friends the Members for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), for Stone (Sir William Cash), for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Edward Timpson). These constituents feel that they are not being given the necessary support for planning if they will have to move house. Some of my constituents’ homes will be demolished in phase 2a, but they are being told that because parliamentary consent for that phase has not been given—the matter is not even before Parliament—nothing can be done, even though they have to make plans over the next four or five years to build a new house. Has my right hon. Friend come across such instances?
What is so depressing is the fact that the lessons from phase 1 that we have tried to point out do not seem to have been learned, and the mistakes are being repeated in phase 2. The burden of supplementing HS2’s poor performance has certainly fallen disproportionately on local authorities. I am fearful about the next part of the process and the planning that will follow, because there will be more and more burdens on our local authorities, whose budgets—let’s face it—are stretched as it is.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford implied, the fact is that whatever is decided regarding the current Bill as it goes through the House of Lords will inevitably be applied as a precedent for the next Bill. That is why we need to follow closely what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham says. I congratulate her on doing everything possible to get this right now.
Separately from giving evidence and making recommendations on how we should change the procedures of the House, I think that everyone would agree that it is inequitable that our Standing Orders prevent Members of Parliament from appearing as petitioners in the other place. The Chairman of the Committee had no choice but to interpret the Standing Orders in that way, but to remove the right of advocacy from Members of Parliament seems self-defeating and inadequate, and I am sure that Members of both Houses will want that to change.
The burden on local authorities, especially in relation to communications, has been astronomical. The leader of Buckinghamshire County Council told the House of Lords HS2 Select Committee on Monday that the council had spent £110,264 in 2015-16 on community liaison relating to HS2. That was entirely to cover for HS2’s poor communications. The council has asked for retrospective compensation to recover those costs, which I think is entirely reasonable. I hope that the Minister will agree to that request. If he cannot do so at the Dispatch Box today, perhaps he will do me the courtesy of looking into the matter to see how we can compensate our local authorities.
I would like the Minister to note that I find it incredible that a county council can provide actual figures for communication and community engagement, down to the last pound, whereas HS2 Ltd cannot do so. Indeed, the county council has since incurred further costs in assisting HS2 Ltd’s groundwork investigations, as its staff are consistently used to help to mediate between HS2 Ltd and residents when intentions to access land have not been adequately communicated. HS2 Ltd could and should be doing that job satisfactorily on its own, if only it had the will. Prior to the introduction of the local engagement managers, local authorities were expected to plug the gap in communication and to provide residents with information that was not readily available from HS2 Ltd. The Minister should bear in mind the fact that that was all done at the councils’ own expense.
It is not just local authorities, parish councils and residents that are affected in this way; HS2 Ltd’s poor engagement reaches into a wider constituency. I have been contacted by the Woodland Trust, which reports that it has not been engaged on the independent review of biodiversity, as recommended in the House of Commons Select Committee, and that it might now have to petition the House of Lords without the information it needs. It also tells me that information regarding third-party planning applications has not been forthcoming from HS2 Ltd, and that that has caused unacceptable delays in compensation payments. A project of this size that brings with it such a heavy burden on our environment, in particular the violation of the AONB in the Chilterns, really should ensure that it deals with the detail and follows up with the environmental organisations that are trying to help to mitigate the project’s impact on the environment.
I ask the Minister to take note of the ongoing communication failures and to ensure that he will make sorting them out his priority. This catalogue of errors has considerably hindered HS2 Ltd’s operation—it is the company’s fault—and is costing the taxpayer even more money. The Minister needs to consider creating a scrutiny body with teeth to hold the organisation to account, especially with construction fast approaching.
HS2 Ltd needs a better attitude towards the affected people. When I was preparing for this debate, I thought of two main themes that I wanted to leave with the Minister. First, I want to ensure that there is an overhaul of the communication and engagement strategy and the attitudes of HS2 Ltd. That should be considered at the highest level of the Department for Transport. Secondly, echoing the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), I want to ensure that this communication calamity never happens again. Residents who received substandard treatment during phase 1 should be the exception, not the rule. If residents are going to be treated the same way under phase 2, the taxpayer will be paying even more for the project than is anticipated.
We have to reconsider how we do major infrastructure projects. We had an announcement this week on Heathrow, which I welcomed because it will be of economic benefit to Buckinghamshire, my constituency and my residents. We finally got a decision after the Davies commission and years of investigation—the project has been examined from every angle. HS2, however, was written on the back of an envelope by a Labour Transport Minister and immediately adopted by the coalition Government. All those processes were not followed. One system is far too long and the other is far too short. We need to find a way of ensuring that our infrastructure projects are the right projects in the right places, and that communications and engagement are of the highest standard, otherwise greater problems will emerge as such projects progress.
I do not usually talk at such great length and did not realise that I was going to have the luxury of taking so many interventions. I thank my colleagues in the Chamber for their support today, particularly those who must remain silent. I hope that the Minister will assure me that he will use his influence radically to re-evaluate how HS2 Ltd deals with our constituents, and that he will embed a culture of respect, transparency, openness and improved communications.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on securing this debate on the effectiveness of the communication and engagement undertaken by HS2 Ltd. I must begin by acknowledging her tireless work, which has had a measurable effect on the Government’s approach. She also highlighted the communications problems that have been a part of the project to date, about which I have heard not only from my right hon. Friend today, and previously, but from other colleagues around the House. The main thing that she asked of me in her closing remarks was whether I would undertake to look at the communication thus far and improve it. I can assure her on that right now, and I will go into this in a bit more detail.
Let me start by putting the HS2 project into context. I know that we might disagree on this, but I believe that HS2 is a vital strategic issue for our whole country. Our rail industry is a huge success and—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)
Our rail industry is a huge success, and that growth is causing huge problems for the capacity of the network. We need to put capacity into the network, which is what HS2 is about. We need to recognise that it will bring connectivity and capacity on the vital routes between London and the west midlands, Crewe, Leeds, Manchester, south Yorkshire and the east midlands. It will also create space on our networks for other new routes, and give a boost to our regional and national economies. It is vital for the jobs it will create.
I know that the Minister is only using those things as a backdrop to the points he is going to deal with in a moment on the specifics that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) so ably put forward. Will he accept, however, that report after report has challenged the assumptions on which he has just made his remarks? Although the vote in the House of Commons demonstrated a huge majority for the project, the reports that have been coming out over the past few years have universally condemned the project, on cost and increasing cost grounds, and on many of the assumptions on which he has just put forward his case.
It would be a little extreme to say that all the reports that have been written on this project are universally condemning it—I do not believe that to be the case. I recognise that some voices have cast doubts upon the project, or have said that we should be doing a different project or that there could be an alternative use of public money, but there is now real momentum behind this project, which had overwhelming support in this House, with the votes on Second and Third Reading of the phase 1 hybrid Bill being passed by nine to one in favour.
When construction begins next year, attitudes will change on this again. We intend to start construction shortly after Royal Assent, which we anticipate will be towards Christmas or in January, depending on the progress that their lordships make; the commencement of work should be in the spring. At that point, the debate will change. It will not be about whether or not we should be doing this project, but about how we can maximise its benefits, because this project is going to happen. When the construction does start, HS2 will rapidly become the largest infrastructure project in Europe. A project of the scale, complexity and duration of HS2’s nature requires engagement across many communities, organisations and individuals.
Having just confirmed the scale and complexity of the project, does the Minister agree that it would be sensible to have a dedicated Minister for it, as it is of such size that it needs supervising closely? It is clearly out of control at the moment.
I would not say this project is out of control. The apportionment of responsibilities is mercifully way above my pay grade, but I am thoroughly enjoying having responsibility for this project, because it is an exciting one that will transform our rail industry. It is our long overdue recognition that we need to start taking responsibility for our own transport futures. We are still trading off Victorian infrastructure, which shows not only how significant the ambitions of our Victorian forefathers were, but how we need to address the situation and take responsibility for ourselves.
Let me get back to my point about the scale of the project. We are dealing with a project of enormous scale, complexity and duration, and we are talking about one of the largest communications and engagements challenges ever undertaken on an infrastructure project in this country. On a project of this scale, we cannot leave the communications and engagement to chance. The Government and those who enact the policies of the Government, such as HS2 Ltd, have a duty to communicate clearly and openly with everyone, but above all with those on whom Government policies may impact and, in some cases, disadvantage. All of that takes time, resources and professionalism. Above all, the underlying attitude has to be to treat individuals and communities with respect. That point underpinned many of the remarks of my right hon. Friend. It is very disappointing to hear that there are huge concerns about this, and that people feel that that has not happened. I personally undertake to take all the points from today’s debate to HS2 Ltd, and to have further conversation about them, because the attitude that has been described is unacceptable and will have to change.
l very much respect the attitude of the Minister towards the project and this debate. Will he also mention to HS2 another concern of my constituents, which is that when they are suffering from great stress as a result of this project—we are talking about some fairly elderly folk—there is no particular provision for them at their local GP surgeries to receive some kind of additional counselling to help them overcome it?
I will most certainly look into that. My hon. Friend always speaks up as a great champion for his constituency, particularly in health matters, and I am happy to take his point forward.
Communication and professionalism are the principles that HS2 must apply, but not in a profligate way. We have taken a very positive and conservative approach to publicly funded communications under this Government and the coalition Government. Basically, I am talking about doing more without spending more. By 2015, we were actually spending 47% less on communications than six years previously. HS2 must be focused in its communication.
It might just help if I explain some of the things that have happened before talking about the future. Over the past few years, HS2 Ltd has delivered what has been estimated as the largest public consultation that we have ever had in this country. Through public events, exhibitions and information boards, the company has engaged with more than 30,000 people. The High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Select Committee has heard more than 1,578 petitions, compared with 205 petitions for the Crossrail Bill. Overall, HS2 Ltd estimates that it has interacted with more than 140,000 people, received 80,000 consultation responses, dealt with 37,000 helpdesk inquiries, engaged with 20,000 people at meetings and events and, last year, sent out approximately 396,000 pieces of literature.
All of that says to me that there are things happening in scale, but all of the concerns that have been articulated by my right hon. Friend indicate that we have much further to go in this piece.
As my hon. Friend will know, the word consultation means “I hear what you say”, but it does not mean that “I will do what you ask”. In fact, the attitude that has been highlighted by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and that I have had personal experience of, is that people are listened to, but then nothing much happens after that. That is called communication, not consultation.
My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point. Consultation in the worst cases can simply be a tick-box exercise—a process that has to be undertaken for lots of different elements of public policy or for planning applications. That is not good enough, but during the progress of the Bill, we have seen many changes in the original proposals, the consultation and the route and the communication around it. We are not in that place where people are just going through the exercise and not listening, but I do not want people to think that their voices will not be heard. We must ensure that people recognise that their views are respected. That goes back to my earlier point about ensuring that, underpinning everything, there is an attitude of openness and respect for individuals.
Will the Minister give way?
I am making no progress, but yes, I will give way.
I am sure the Minister will—he has a good 20 minutes, and he thought he was going to have only 10, so he has plenty of time.
Yes, in my area, for example, we have had route changes, but the proposal that HS2 should come up in the middle of the football pitch in the middle of Old Amersham was geologically incompetent, and it had to be changed because it was impossible for it to come up in that particular area, so they moved it along to Mantles wood. However, the change was made by the Select Committee here in the House of Commons on additional provision 4, so it was not HS2 or the Department that were listening; it was actually the House of Commons Select Committee—our colleagues—that was listening and made changes. We in the Chilterns area would still like further tunnelling to protect the valuable and fragile landscape. However, that is rapidly diminishing into the great beyond and is impossible, but I am hoping that, maybe, the Minister will give me encouragement that he is listening and that he could achieve that for us.
I am, indeed, listening. I am not entirely sure that I can promise extra tunnelling in the Chilterns—that was a very big ask. We have, as a House, and through this project, been over that ground in some detail. However, the point remains that consultations are to genuinely listen to local input so that projects can be improved, whichever part of our public services it is. That cannot mean that everybody gets what they want—that is not possible—but it certainly means that people should be treated with respect and that it is not just a tick-box exercise.
The point about the numbers I was going through earlier is that there is already scale to what is happening. These are big numbers, but the big numbers have to be backed by practical help. In April 2014, an improved assistance package for property owners close to the route was announced. I would stress that the Government are committed to fairly compensating land and property owners directly affected by HS2. Most large infrastructure projects compensate property owners only when statutory compensation measures apply. Given the time it will take to develop HS2, which is a most unique project, the Government recognise that earlier discretionary schemes help those property owners who are most severely affected by the proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) raised the point about those most affected by blight in phase 2a. They can submit a blight notice, and that means, potentially, face value for property—10% homeowner’s payment and costs. I will write to my hon. Friend with details of that so he can pass those on to his constituents and anybody else who may contact him.
Residents with properties on the full phase 1 and phase 2a routes currently have access to a package of compensation measures and assistance. Overall, these are available much more widely than for other infrastructure projects, and, indeed, offer more choice. We intend to bring forward proposals for long-term property compensation and assistance schemes when the HS2 phase 2b announcement is made later this year.
The need-to-sell scheme is, I believe, operating fairly. I will of course pick up the points my right hon. Friend mentioned. We already have updated guidance to reflect learning from the scheme since its inception in January last year. In particular, a change made earlier this year allows a successful applicant to choose one of the two initial valuers, either from HS2 Ltd’s pool or any Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors-registered valuer. While that change is recent, initial results show fewer properties need further valuations to determine their fair price. That is an issue the right hon. Lady has raised, and I am grateful to her for her contribution. It was alluded to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, when he talked about how increased and improved communication may have mitigated the need for more petitions as the Bill progressed.
A residents’ charter has been introduced setting out clear commitments by HS2 Ltd to local communities. Through the charter, HS2 Ltd pledges to communicate plainly; respond to inquiries quickly and efficiently; and promote awareness of all discretionary property schemes. Holding HS2 Ltd to the standards of the charter is the independent residents commissioner Deborah Fazan. I have met her already, and I intend to have a regular series of meetings with her and, indeed, others, to make sure they are taking up and following through any issues raised with me by colleagues.
HS2 Ltd has introduced a robust, verified complaints-handling process which includes an independent review stage that meets ISO 9001—the nationally accredited standard. The real prize, of course, is to avoid as far as possible giving cause for complaint. That means building HS2 carefully and correctly. An environmental statement accompanied the introduction of the hybrid Bill, and further environmental statements have accompanied the additional provisions considered by the Select Committee. Changes made in the Select Committee mean less land take, more noise barriers, and longer tunnels. On the latter point, I again acknowledge the successful campaigning by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham to lengthen the tunnel through her constituency.
It has been brought to my attention that there have been proposals for tunnelling through sand and gravel, and that in such circumstances an enormous of time will be wasted given that it is not possible to do that because it just falls in.
I am not a geologist, but I am aware of concerns about the ground conditions on the route for phase 1 and phase 2a. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) has highlighted the challenges regarding salt mines. These issues will be tackled in full and in detail by geologists. I recognise the challenges involved in a project with significant tunnelling, but, as a country, we have learned more about that through the progress made on Crossrail.
My right hon. Friend has made very clear the frustrations of not only her constituents but those of her colleagues’ constituents. HS2 Ltd acknowledges that it has not always got communications right, as we know. It did not in the case of Flats Lane near Lichfield, as the parliamentary and health service ombudsman’s report and the inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee laid bare. I am not here to make excuses for the company. We must deal with all those affected with fairness, and fairness requires the highest standards of engagement. I believe that HS2 is an organisation that is learning, and it needs to learn and improve over time. Communications on phase 2 reflect the lessons of past engagement. I cannot correct what has happened before, but I can seek to learn from it, to make sure that the company has learned from it, and to correct and improve things for the future. Much has taken place and much more is planned.
On phase 2a, HS2 Ltd has seen 2,184 people at 13 information events held this month and last month, as well as numerous meetings with parish councils and action groups. It has also met individuals directly and indirectly affected by the 2a line of route. In addition, 1,487 people have been seen at phase 2a property events this year, and 1,442 were seen in 2015. On phase 2b, the company has already seen 6,458 people at nine information events held in South Yorkshire, plus a further 123 at appointment events. For me, that shows how much demand for information there is from the public. They know that this is a big deal, and they need to know what it means for them. High-level communication has to be at the core of a successful project. Following a decision on the phase 2b route, the company has plans for a series of further engagement events, details of which will be made known once confirmed.
Vital as good engagement on phase 2 is, the first phase of HS2 is poised at a significant threshold—the start of construction. HS2 Ltd will specify the behaviours it expects of its contractors in their engagement with residents and communities. For contractors working on HS2, key performance indicators on community engagement will form part of their contracts, and HS2 Ltd will measure their approach to this. The phase that we are entering will see many more people working not just on HS2 but all through the HS2 supply chain. The number of potential interactions between members of the public and the project will therefore increase. It is important to note that this is not just an HS2 Ltd issue; it is an HS2 Ltd and supply chain issue.
One of the key things I have tried to put across during this debate is the fact that people do not have confidence in HS2 or in the independent commissioners who are supposed to represent their interests if things go wrong. Does the Minister agree that for HS2 to have an interim chief executive who comes from a contractor that has already received contracts from HS2, and that is now bidding for further contracts from HS2, makes it look as though there is a conflict of interest? Does the Minister agree that it hardly engenders confidence in the public that the project is being anything other than steamrollered through by people who are connected and who do not share the best interests of those who are affected by the scheme? Is that a relationship that the Minister is happy with? I think that there is a conflict of interest.
We sought to make sure that the project continued in its critical phase of delivery when Mr Kirby left to join Rolls-Royce. People leave companies all the time. He had a very good offer to go into Rolls-Royce, and he has taken it. “Man leaves company” is not necessarily news, but it would be news if the project faltered. We seek to secure continuity of delivery while we engage in a full and open recruitment process for a replacement for Mr Kirby.
I understand all the points that have been made about trust and communication. Trust is easy to lose and difficult to gain. As the project develops, the company will simply have to work much harder to rebuild trust. It takes ages to rebuild something that can be lost in a moment. As I have said, we cannot correct what has happened in the past. I know that there are frustrations from communities, councils and colleagues here. We have to learn from them and put in place measures in HS2 and the HS2 supply chain, with a means of appeal. We can come on to the commissioners in a moment. Those have to be the principles by which we can plan for the future. The company is developing its plans for working with contractors to deliver engagement plans for each area, and they will be captured in a public code of construction practice.
An announcement will be made shortly on HS2 Ltd’s appointment of a director of community engagement, who will answer directly to the CEO. In addition, HS2 Ltd has recruited engagement managers for the phase 1 route, and their numbers have increased from six earlier this year to 26 today. They will be the main points of contact for local communities and will be responsible for acting on the concerns of those communities. Moreover, the engagement managers will be responsible for ensuring that the issues that are raised with them are addressed by HS2 Ltd in a timely and open manner.
As a statutory undertaker, HS2 Ltd has been required to appoint an independent construction commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham highlighted her meeting with Gareth Epps, who was appointed to the role on an interim basis in July. His is an interim role, but we envisage that it will increase after Royal Assent. It would be inappropriate to start adding to the cost base by allocating offices and taking on staff until we have clear Royal Assent. We intend to make sure that that role is independent and away from HS2 Ltd.
I want to use this opportunity to register my concern, about which I am writing to the persons responsible, regarding the temporary construction facility of a railhead near Stone, in my constituency, which will affect Swynnerton, Eccleshall and Stone itself—as well as Yarnfield, of course, which is where I am going on Saturday. I just thought I would get that on the record so that the Minister could pass on that message to the people he is talking about.
That message is now firmly on the record. It is inevitable that when projects of great scale arrive in any area, they will attract enormous public interest, public concern and, in many cases, public enthusiasm. We need to make sure that we get this right, and Members of Parliament have an important role as a natural place for a resident who is concerned about a national policy initiative to go.
The construction commissioner will mediate in unresolved disputes between HS2 Ltd and individuals or bodies, including under a planned small claims scheme. He will also monitor complaints and advise on how to reduce them where possible, and he will scrutinise HS2 Ltd and the community engagement work of its contractors, to provide a clear steer for the company. As I have said, following Royal Assent we expect it to become a permanent role, and I intend to have regular contact so that I am fully informed of any issues up and down the line.
I have alluded to the variety of communities and groups with an interest in HS2. The company understands the importance of a tailored approach. Its equality, diversity and inclusion team is at the forefront of engaging with harder-to-reach communities, including perhaps those with a language barrier. There have been concerns in the Camden area, for instance. That highlights the importance of local representatives, so local government has a significant role to play in HS2.
HS2 Ltd provides briefing sessions for local authority elected members and chief officers, and it meets, briefs and seeks input from them. I have met authority leaders in Birmingham and Manchester in the past few days. They are looking at the project in a very encouraging and exciting way and are considering how they will be able to redevelop their areas when the project lands. However, it is not just about redevelopment; it is also about construction work. HS2 Ltd, local authorities and other bodies, such as Highways England, have to engage properly in order to plan the building process effectively.
Will the Minister give an undertaking that he will look at my amendments relating to the adjudicator?
I am coming to that and the answer is yes.
HS2 Ltd also has to engage with business organisations, to ensure that they know how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by HS2. I want HS2 to be a project that is from the UK for the UK, with UK contractors bidding for and winning business.
This is a project that matters to everyone, and I believe that it is in the national interest. Of course, it matters particularly to those whom it directly affects, and doing what is right by them includes excellent communications and engagement. That is what I and, most importantly, those along the route are entitled to expect from HS2, and it has given me that commitment. It is seeking to learn and build on what has happened before.
I will visit the HS2 offices in Birmingham shortly to review the community engagement plans. I will sit down with the team to discuss them and I will go through all the points that have been made by colleagues today. I can certainly provide an undertaking to review the amendments, as requested by my right hon. Friend. I will also consider her point about compensation to local authorities and write to her.
The point that I really want to make is that we cannot correct the past. This is a project that is happening. I believe that it is exciting and necessary and that it will transform our rail industry and provide a huge opportunity to regenerate large swathes of big cities across our country. Ultimately, I believe that it is a project that we will be proud of as a nation, but we have to make sure that we deal with the issues that have been raised, including building trust and communicating better. I can certainly give colleagues the undertaking that they can raise issues with me and that I will then take them up with HS2 right away. I want to make sure that, from the moment we set about building the project and right along the length of its line, people are treated with openness and respect, and that through that we can build the trust that has been missing, as judged from the comments of colleagues today.
Question put and agreed to.