David Lidington (left) with French junior minister for European affairs Thierry Repentin
last month. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
Transport chiefs are under fire after more than 15,000 households were sent a "misleading" letter suggesting their properties were at risk of being bulldozed to make way for the HS2 high-speed rail line.
David Lidington, a Conservative Foreign Office minister, accused his own government's project of spreading unnecessary fears after all homeowners along the route received an identical notice just before Christmas saying their land might be compulsorily purchased.
In fact, the purchase order was necessary in just over 300 cases, and those households had already been informed.
The letter has intensified anger about the rail line among some Tory MPs whose constituents are affected, causing Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, to intervene with a reminder to everyone involved in HS2 of the need to be sensitive.
In a letter to HS2 company heads, Lidington wrote that it was unforgivable that thousands of families had been left worried after a "wretched mishandling" of communications.
He said many of his constituents had previously been sent a letter saying access to their property would be needed for 203 weeks, when a drafting error meant this should have said two to three weeks.
"I am astonished and very angry that HS2 Ltd has failed to learn from their previous mistakes," said Lidington, the MP for Aylesbury. "They appear to have allowed their parliamentary agents to send an identically worded letter to every property owner on the entire route whose property is affected by the HS2 scheme, regardless of whether a property is due to be compulsorily purchased or if access is required for a very short space of time on a temporary basis, for example to allow work to be done to electrical cables."
Describing both letters as misleading, he said: "It is unforgivable that HS2 Ltd's wretched mishandling of its communications should twice now have caused people unnecessary fears.
"I have also expressed my disappointment again to both HS2 Ltd and transport ministers about the way this matter has been handled."
The letter sent out by HS2 Ltd, which is wholly owned by the transport department, warns people that their properties could be compulsorily acquired or otherwise used under a law paving the way for phase one of the high-speed rail link between London and the West Midlands. The coalition argues that the line will boost the economy and cut journey times.
The £40bn project has been criticised for its spiralling costs and is unpopular among many Tory MPs, many of whom oppose the plans because the line will pass through their constituencies. Labour has warned that it will not give the project a blank cheque.
A source close to McLoughlin said the information sent out by HS2 to those living near the line should have been clearer. "His view is that everyone involved with HS2 needs to understand how sensitive such matters are for those affected and ensure they always act accordingly," he said.
McLoughlin is also unhappy about the drafting mistakes in the previous letter to 140 people.
"When Patrick heard about the error in the letter HS2 ltd sent to some of David Lidington's constituents, he made it clear it was totally unacceptable and must not happen again," the source said.
Meanwhile, a campaigner called for the consultation on the environmental impact of the route's first phase to be extended beyond its original deadline two weeks from now, because 877 pages were missing from a USB stick sent out containing the documents. The omitted data related to 17 parliamentary constituencies along the route.
HS2 has now reissued the sticks with the correct pages but campaigners say they do not have enough time to consider the huge amount of information. Many were already unhappy that the two-month consultation fell partly over the Christmas period.
Cheryl Gillan, a former Tory cabinet minister under the coalition and a prominent critic of HS2, criticised a series of "administrative failures by HS2 and the government".
She said the consultation should be extended to allow residents more time to consider their responses.
Responding to all the concerns, an HS2 spokesman said the letters sent to 15,000 households were a legal requirement.
He added: "The pages that were briefly missing from the environmental statement memory sticks would not have prevented anyone from being able to respond to the consultation.
"The works on national grid overhead lines in Aylesbury will take place over a two- to three-week window. Unfortunately, residents were led to believe the works would take place over 203 weeks. In response to this, HS2 has made proactive efforts to visit the 140 residents to explain the true nature and extent of the works. We hope the situation is now resolved."
Courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com
Minister accuses project of causing panic as 15,000 wrongly told construction would mean compulsory purchase of homes