Transport Correspondent

A senior civil servant defended his decision to refuse compensation to five families who had been affected by blight caused by a proposed new railway, even though he accepted that the cases involved "severe and harrowing personal distress".

Sir Patrick Brown, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, yesterday faced nearly two hours' questioning by the Commons Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration over his failure to accept the finding of an ombudsman's report that he was wrong not to pay compensation. It is only the second case of such a refusal by a government department.

The report, published in January, said the DoT had caused severe blight to a number of homes along the proposed path of the Channel tunnel rail link (CTRL) and had wrongly denied the residents compensation.

The ombudsman, William Reid, had been approached by MPs who had taken up the cases of five families who were outside the boundaries of the statutory scheme designed to help people affected by the link but had been hit by "generalised blight", making it impossible for them to sell their homes.

Mr Reid's report argued that the department had put the CTRL project in "limbo" in June 1990 when it was clear private funding was not forthcoming and it had remained in that state until publication of the final route in April 1994.

Mr Reid said that the scheme was an exceptional one and the families' circumstances were also "exceptional". One had been advised to move by a psychologist and one woman had a degenerative disability and needed to move near relatives.

Sir Patrick, clearly fearful of setting precendents, was unmoved. He said that if he agreed to compensation there would be many more cases in the pipeline.

However, he was taken aback when a member of the committee, Bridget Prentice, read out a statement from John Watts, the roads and railways minister. In December he said he "would seek . . . arrangements that can accommodate severe hardship in compassionate cases without creating precedents".

Mr Watts is now likely to be called by the committee, which is to decide whether the ombudsman's finding was correct.