HS2 plans force digital change in Parliament’s procedures

Massive size of document on new rail line leads to requirement that it is delivered in electronic format rather than on paper

The law is to be changed to make a massive environmental statement on the HS2 rail line available only in electronic format.

High speed trainIt will prevent a monster 12,000-page paper document having to be delivered to dozens of different council areas before the line is built. 

MPs and peers agreed a change in the High Speed Rail Bill after hearing that paper copies would otherwise have to be sent to every council along the route of the line – including parish councils without the space to display them.

Some had found the only way to cope with such large documents was to ask for them to be delivered to a library in a neighbouring town, the Government said 

The situation exposed out-of-date parliamentary rules dating back to the 19th century and which had not even been amended since 1948, ministers added.

The problem has blown up ahead of publication of the bill to build the second part of the HS2 network, known as Phase 2a, to run between Fradley in the West Midlands and Crewe in Cheshire.

Complicated bill

Such “hybrid bills”, affecting both the public as a whole and specific individuals, are highly complicated. In this case it involves the acquisition of land, building demolitions, altering rights of way and changing infrastructure owned by utility companies.

Without the law change, Parliament’s standing orders that would require the depositing of “a paper copy of the document in every local authority area along the line of route”.

When the issue came before MPs, Michael Ellis, the Commons deputy leader, said: “It is therefore necessary to move this motion to update parliamentary procedure to reflect developments in technology since 1948.

“In this day and age, that is inconvenient for the communities involved, especially for parish councils, many of which do not have sufficient space.”

The motion, which was approved without dissent, “does not require documents to be deposited in electronic format only”, the minister added.

“If a deposit location wants all the documents in hard copy, HS2 Ltd will provide them in hard copy,” he said.

“Electronic documentation will, of course, make it easier for communities along the line of route to find the information most relevant to their area without having to work through an otherwise enormous document.”

Company requirement

The key documents, including the bill itself and the non-technical summary of the environmental statement, would be made available in hard copy. And, if a council lacks the equipment to make electronic documents available to local people, the company is required to pay to provide that equipment.

The issue also arose four year ago, when the first HS2 Bill – to construct the line between London and Birmingham – was brought forward, but Parliament has not changed the standing orders in the time since.

Photo by Steve Jones, CC BY 2.0 through flickr