The Department for Transport recently (April 25, 2022) appointed former Tory MP Stewart Jackson as Residents’ Commissioner of HS2, in an effort to ensure the government upholds its fundamental principles of respecting people and places at as the construction of HS2 progresses. Jackson and will be responsible for “promote open and transparent communication with residents” along the planned route of HS2.
The appointment comes at a time when HS2’s treatment of residents is under intense scrutiny. In a recent Telegraph article, Parliament and Health Services Ombudsman Rob Behrens reportedly said HS2 had treated affected residents as a nuisance and without enough respect. Mr. Behrens went on to describe the HS2 complaints system as “sub-optimal”.
In this light, you would be forgiven for thinking that the appointment of a Residents’ Commissioner is the creation of a new role. In fact, Rail Technology Magazine led with an article titled “HS2 names new role to connect entrepreneurs to local communities”although Mr. Jackson replaced outgoing Deborah Fazan who had held the post since 2015. It is perhaps fair to say that the existence of the role was not as high profile as it once could be.
Mr Jackson’s appointment will be of particular significance to landowners along the proposed HS2 route between Crewe and Manchester. If (or more likely when) the High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill is passed, it will grant powers to HS2 Ltd (the company behind HS2) to build and maintain the HS2 network, and importantly, to compulsorily acquire land along the road. The government hopes Mr. Jackson’s appointment will help build relationships with communities affected by HS2 and feedback of concerns raised, to facilitate the smooth development of the network. The expected outcome is that the construction of HS2 should be adapted to accommodate the specific concerns raised by these communities. It remains to be seen whether this is indeed what will happen.
Having been a local councilor in west London, an MP for 12 years and deputy chairman of the Local Government Association, Mr Jackson should reasonably be seen as a good choice, bringing with him a wealth of experience of public support.
In reality, residents and landowners, many of whom feel ignored by HS2, are hoping to see the programs of engagement and two-way communication that have been promised come to fruition. Whether these programs will actually lead to an overhaul of the “sub-optimal” HS2 complaints system remains to be seen. Ultimately, many landowners will continue to feel uncomfortable when their land is compulsorily acquired, for a project they may not support, regardless of the level of engagement with their communities.
Common means of engagement have always been through MPs, the petitions process and local committees. However, groups that have been hit by low engagement from HS2 should now consider stepping up that engagement in light of this appointment – the real test of Mr Jackson’s success in the role will be how these approaches are handled. We are happy to discuss how we might be able to help with this process.
“There is a common element in many cases that we see about a lack of respect that [government] departments have for people. And that’s what we want to change in the complaints standards initiative that we have, which is loaded with rigor, learning, openness and compassion. Which is not a word I see used much in central government.” – Rob Behrens in the Telegraph.