Meeting the land referencing challenge of HS2

Source: RTM June/July 15

Before the first construction work starts, let alone the first train runs, a phenomenal amount of work is required to ensure the development of a new railway can proceed. At the very heart of obtaining the necessary legal powers to build, run and maintain the railway in the UK is the ‘book of reference’. Ashley Parry Jones, senior technical director at Mouchel Consulting, describes the challenges in producing this vital Parliamentary submission.

The development of a high-speed railway is an engineering challenge that is both exciting and complex. In identifying potential route options, the scale of the planning and legal challenges emerge. In a country as densely populated as Britain, such a plan inevitably impacts landowners, homeowners and businesses with whom the rail promoter needs to consult and engage.

For a new railway there are no existing permitted development powers available. Instead, Parliament must approve the powers required to authorise the railway, including the rights to acquire land compulsorily. It is, perhaps, the exercise of obtaining these compulsory powers that occupies Parliament the most, arguably setting the UK apart from other legislatures.

The process of identifying lands and rights in land that may be affected by an infrastructure development project such as HS2 is called ‘land referencing’; a professional service requirement since the advent of the UK’s first super highways, the canals.

As happened during the peak of new railway construction in the 1840s, the land referencing process results in a key document called a ‘book of reference’ deposited as part of a Parliamentary Bill (and now also Transport and Works Act and Development Consent Order – DCO – applications).

The book of reference lists all the land parcels that are to be directly affected by the project – either permanently acquired as part of the build footprint of the railway, or temporarily occupied to facilitate the construction of the scheme.

Importantly, all those listed as having legal interests must receive notification of the progress of the Bill and, when it is deposited, are thereby given an opportunity to petition Parliament to have their concerns heard as part of the select committees’ consideration processes. In the months leading to this massive paperwork exercise, the information gathered will also be used to ensure that everyone potentially affected is consulted about the developing proposals and given a say in how the plans should be progressed.

Land referencing is therefore a critical interface between those most affected by the proposals and the promoter seeking to gain the Parliamentary powers required to progress infrastructure development. It is a multi-disciplinary activity requiring a service provider such as Mouchel Consulting to integrate a broad range of demands including legal, construction and land take requirements.

For phase 1 of HS2, between London and Birmingham, the task is made all the more challenging by the scale. Nearly 11,000 land parcels across 111 administrative areas required the simultaneous service of over 15,000 unique notices to advise affected land owners and occupiers of the progress of the hybrid Bill.

The rules under which a Bill must be prepared (‘Standing Orders’) have stood the test of time, despite the number and complexity of the stakeholders and the fact that the expectations of accuracy massively exceed those experienced by Victorian rail promoters.

Their pen and ink documents are strikingly similar to those that now require powerful geographic information systems. Today, however, only through the use of these bespoke tools allied to specialist knowledge can the huge administrative exercise of collating the land ownership, engineering design and legal requirements into the required suite of related Parliamentary submission documents, including the book of reference and notices, be achieved.

In depositing the largest piece of legislation of this sort ever laid before Parliament, HS2 Ltd met this massive challenge and the project remains on track as it moves towards phase 1 construction.

Mouchel Consulting has provided land referencing for UK flagship projects such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Thameslink and Crossrail. It also delivers wide-ranging environmental expertise for all stages of an asset lifecycle, helps clients access funding for railway asset improvements and, when plans become reality, offers expertise on earthworks, drainage, structures, highway interfaces, customer information systems and station interchange facilities.

E: [email protected]


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