Pinsent Mason's Robbie Owen

HS2: What's next and how can the Bill process be accelerated?

Sir David Higgins’ Report into HS2 deserves to be a defining moment in the history of HS2, and we can expect it to be shored up on Friday by Lord Deighton’s HS2 Growth Task Force Report.  

In fewer than 20 pages, Sir David put the case for HS2 brilliantly and powerfully.  How can anyone think it was ever about speed rather than capacity and connectivity?!

This is by far the best rendition of the case for this £50bn investment I have read since the project was kicked off over five years ago, making plain the strong link between infrastructure provision and economic activity. And the Secretary of State for Transport’s response that same day was refreshingly clear and supportive, concluding that “HS2 is a project that will be built over many parliaments and will serve many people for many generations.  We must design it carefully and build it correctly.  The government is keen to rise to the challenge and we hope that hon. members on all sides of the House will do the same.”

"How can anyone think it was ever about speed rather than capacity and connectivity?!"

There are a number of reasons why the report will have an important place in the HS2 story. It should ensure that the key components of HS2 are right by, for example, dropping the ‘sub-optimal’ HS2/HS1 link and opting for a more ambitious redevelopment of Euston station and so delivering a better environmental and economic outcome. Demonstrating control over the project’s budget was vital and by speeding up Phase Two, overall costs will be reduced and the benefits enjoyed sooner. All in all, the report should lead to much stronger cross-party backing for the project.

Next steps 

But where do matters go from this point?  The Phase One Hybrid Bill is due to be given a Second Reading in the House of Commons at the end of April, in which case petitions by those ‘specially and directly affected’ will be due by approximately 20 May. Then, what could prove to be a very long select committee stage will start.  The Commons’ select committee on the Crossrail Bill was in existence for 22 months.  

The Secretary of State recently conceded that the Bill was not going to get through Parliament by the General Election but we all knew that was never going to happen anyway.  If the Bill receives the Royal Assent by mid 2016, that will be quick progress and a year faster than the Crossrail Bill.  My prediction is that towards the end of 2016 is more likely.

Why is that?  Well, there are likely to be a lot of petitions to be heard, for a start.  Not as many as the circa 23,000 recent responses to the Environmental Statement, but perhaps 5,000? And the changes the Government announced on Monday may themselves delay the Bill while the necessary ‘Additional Provisions’ are prepared to allow the changes to be added to the Bill by the Committee.

"The Commons’ select committee on the Crossrail Bill was in existence for 22 months."  

Euston Station will be the main addition but it is not clear whether the extension of Phase One by 43 miles northwards to a new integrated hub station at Crewe will be added to the Bill once the January 2014 public consultation responses have been considered, or still dealt with as a Phase One A in the second Hybrid Bill due to be introduced in 2017.

The same goes for the HS2/HS1 link, which the Government has said that it will remove from the Bill and instead “commission a study into ways to improve connections to the continent that could be implemented once the initial stages of HS2 are complete”.  Civic leaders in the Midlands and our Northern cities will be anxious to ensure that a commitment is given to do something in place of the current HS2/HS1 link proposal, rather than letting the matter be fudged in that true British way!

Joint select committee?

Sir David made the compelling point that the longer the whole project takes, the more it will cost.  In that context he made a particular reference to the length of the Parliamentary process for the necessary legislation. But even assuming that his report and what is now done to implement it has the desired effect politically to see the Bill through its main stages on the Floor of each House, both this and the other side of the General Election, that will not be enough. The real time taken is the select committee stage, where the petitions are heard and where party political influence does not directly extend.  

"Surely the public interest merits looking again at a joint select committee as it could easily save 6-9 months" 

The Government has reportedly ruled out having a joint select committee rather than one in each House, something not done on a Hybrid Bill for many years, but surely the public interest merits looking at this again as it could easily save 6-9 months whilst still hearing petitions fully and fairly?  It is not too late to reconsider.

Other things could also be done with an eye to speeding up Phase Two, such as putting some discrete elements of Phase Two into the Phase One Bill in cases where the necessary outline design and appraisal work can be done after due consultation and without delaying the Bill.

And finally, it would be good to start those of the Phase One works on the critical path before having to wait for Royal Assent sometime in 2016, and there are one or two ways in which this could be achieved were the political will to be there.

So it’s been a good week for the project but Sir David’s report begs a series of more detailed questions as to next steps, timings and process.  The answers will be of interest to many in addition to the nation as a whole, not least those whose homes, businesses and environments will be affected by construction of the project.


Robbie Owen is a Partner and Roll A Parliamentary Agent and Head of Infrastructure Planning and Government Affairs at Pinsent Masons LLP