DoT attacked for not paying rail-link hardship victims

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The Department of Transport was attacked by MPs last night for refusing to give compensation in extreme hardship cases to residents hit by blight from the Channel tunnel rail link.

The cross-party committee on the Ombudsman castigated the DoT for flatly rejecting a finding of maladministration against it by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, William Reid. The department refused to abide by his recommendation to offer compensation in cases where some residents in Kent suffered extreme hardship in addition to the blight caused by the scheme.

Many of the complaints were by residents in the Blue Bell Hill area, near Chatham, in mid-Kent, where a tunnel was planned for the high-speed route. Residents received letters warning their subsoil could be affected by the tunnelling but they were offered no compensation for blight. One case involved a businessman who needed to sell to pay debts. In another case, Union Railways, the builders of the route, rejected an appeal by a psychiatrist on behalf of a family who were desperate to move house because their son had committed suicide in the property. They claimed they were unable to sell and move because it was blighted, but did not qualify for compulsory purchase.

Roger Freeman, then transport minister, told another couple in Blue Bell Hill that any damage would be put right by Union Railways, although this would be unlikely to happen with such a deep tunnel. "This assurance would also apply to anyone buying their property and so would be of considerable comfort to a prospective purchaser," Mr Freeman said. Residents in Boxley Valley have also fought a losing battle for compensation for general blight caused by the rail scheme over the past eight years. The DoT argued it would be "invidious and impossible to distinguish exceptional suffering caused by blight from suffering which lacks that additional element of "extreme personal distress".

In rejecting the DoT's excuses for refusing to act on the Ombudsman's report, the committee said it was only the second time in the history of the Ombudsman's office that such a report had been put before Parliament. The other occasion in 1977 also involved maladministration by the DoT.

It said the Barlow Clowes affair was another notorious case, but the Government backed down and agreed to make ex-gratia payments. The committee, chaired by James Pawsey, the Tory MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, called on the DoT to reconsider its decision and pay compensation in cases of exceptional hardship.

The committee's report put pressure on Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, to reverse the decision by his predecessor, John MacGregor, to reject the Ombudsman's case for compensation. It said "it would be most regrettable if the Department [of Transport] were to remain obdurate".

However, early indications suggest Sir George might need some convincing as well. In a letter to the Ombudsman's committee earlier this month, he wrote: "Providing compensation which is based purely on subjective judgements about the personal suffering of individuals raises serious administrative and financial problems."