Government savaged over blighted homes

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The Independent Online
The Government should have compensated people in Kent whose homes were blighted by prevarication over the route for the Channel tunnel rail link, a report to be published today by the Parliamentary Ombudsman will say.

A row is expected over the special report - only the second since the job was created and the first since 1978. The Ombudsman, or Parliamentary Commissioner, William Reid, savages the Department of Transport for rejecting his recommendation that householders should be compensated. "For the reasons I have set out in this report I have found that there was maladministration by DoT. For the reasons given in his response, the Permanent Secretary disagrees. As I see matters, there has been injustice arising from maladministration which has not been remedied."

The report brings into question the purpose of the Ombudsman's function and the Government's attitude towards the independent post, held in high esteem by MPs of all parties.

It comes two days after David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the Government would ignore the findings of the Nolan inquiry into standards of public life concerning former ministers taking highly paid jobs in industry.

Mr Reid's attack will be discussed by the Commons Select Committee on the Ombudsman on 1 March. Before then, however, three Kent Conservative MPs will raise the DoT's intransigence with the Secretary of State for Transport, Brian Mawhinney. It was after they referred constituents' complaints that the DoT was digging in its heels over compensation that the Ombudsman began his inquiry.

Last night, one of the three, Sir Keith Speed (Ashford), said he was appalled at the DoT's obstinacy. "The DoT and British Rail made a right cock-up over choosing the route of the link for seven years. Poor devils in my constituency who were trying to sell their houses found they couldn't."

Sir Keith added: "...The Ombudsman is taken very seriously by everyone in the House. We will not take this lying down."

Mr Reid argues that the Channel link was different from other large transport projects because homeowners suffered "undue delay" in obtaining a route decision. "Where there is undue delay in settling a route which is to be constructed - no matter how good the reason for delay may be - DoT's duty must be to ensure that the effects of the continued uncertainty are kept to a minimum."

Problems, Mr Reid writes, were particularly acute because of the nature of the project, the first major railway development in Britain this century. Lack of private funding sent the project back to the drawing board in June 1990 but homeowners were not compensated. It was at that point, when ministers and officials failed to create a purchase scheme, that maladministration began, he says.

In his response, Sir Patrick Brown, Permanent Secretary at the DoT, disputes the link was put in "limbo" in June 1990. He argues that it was no different from other projects, nor was the blight it caused: "I do not propose to offer redress for any of thecase that you put to me."

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