Got till it’s gone

One of life’s simple pleasures that is denied me at the moment is a trip to the pub. This has been the case since the start of this year, when I decided that I should be considerate to the poor souls who will have to bear my coffin, whenever the time comes for that, and shed some blubber – proof that this was a long-overdue decision can be found in the photograph illustrating my blog Brief encounter (posted 22 Apr 2013).

A few days back I breached my self-imposed exile from licensed premises, but only in the line of duty you will appreciate. The occasion was a gig performed by local singer-songwriter Jackie James and some of her friends in a hostelry in Leamington. The excuse that allowed me to attend the gig with a clear conscience – well almost a clear conscience – was that Jackie had kindly dedicated the evening to our action group, and had organised a raffle in aid of our funds. The raffle did very well for us, I am pleased to report; people always seem to be at their most generous when relaxing at the pub, which is something that the Salvation Army latched on to many years ago.

Apart from suffering the frustration of spending all evening sipping a single point of beer, the product of a certain brewery in Southwold that is high on my list of favourites, I really enjoyed the evening, and the music was first-rate. Jackie, in particular, is a very talented music maker, and one of the songs that she performed, although originally recorded in 1970, is very pertinent to the situation that I find myself facing with HS2. That song is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

I am sure that anyone who was a student in my era will be familiar with this song, and Wikipedia informs me that it has been “covered” fairly regularly since then, so there is a chance that it may also be familiar to today’s younger audiences. Certainly, the environmentally-concerned lyrics – Joni sings about when “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – are, sadly, still all too relevant today, despite all the tripe about “the greenest government ever” and David Cameron being photographed on a dog sled at a time when we were blissfully ignorant about his real motivation and even prepared, perhaps, to believe him.

Indeed, the very next morning I heard on the news that the Woodland Trust was reporting “the largest threat to a single ancient woodland site in England that the [Trust] has seen in its 42-year history”. According to the Trust, this threat stands to condemn 50 ha – that’s more than three times the size of London Zoo – of ancient woodland near Tamworth in Staffordshire to becoming a quarry for the extraction of 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel.

This latest example may be the “largest” threat to ancient woodland, but it is only one of many; the Woodland Trust advises that there are currently more than 400 ancient woods threatened across the UK and that, over the past decade, it has contested the cases of more than 1,000 woods under threat of development.

The Tamworth proposal is currently only an application by LaFarge Tarmac, and you might think that the chances of it actually happening are slim; surely, as the last resort, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will call it in and deny the application. However, the Woodland Trust announcement includes a note that a similar application involving 32 ha of ancient woodland near Maidstone was approved by Eric Pickles in 2013, so I think that we should regard the Tamworth application as a very real threat.

The Woodland Trust has estimated that the blanket woodland coverage of lowland UK that was established following the end of the ice ages amounted to as much as 90% of the total UK land area. By the time that the Domesday Book was being compiled this was down to an estimated 15%, and currently stands at a mere 2% of the total UK land area. However, the Natural England assessment is that these remnants still amount, in total, to around 200,000 ha of ancient semi-natural woodland in England alone, so why do we need to worry about the fate of the odd 50 ha?

The answer is that our ancient woodland is suffering death by a thousand cuts. In my blog Leaving something for the grandchildren (posted 17 Mar 2013), I reported Woodland Trust claims that a total of 22,770 acres (9,214 ha) of ancient woodland was under risk at that time, and this is not an insignificant portion of our total reserve. And the damage is far worse than the loss of woodland area alone; when it comes to the ecological value of ancient woodland, size really does matter. In an informative review that the Woodland Trust published at the turn of the millennium, the problems that arise from the fragmentation of woodland, resulting from the felling of parts of larger woods, are discussed (see page 9).

The Trust’s review characterises the 20th century as “a difficult one for the UK’s ancient woodland”, chiefly due, under Forestry Commission policy, to the wholesale creation of plantations on ancient woodland sites that reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s – my researches revealed the coined word “coniferisation” (a word that I rather like, in a warped sort of way) to describe this now generally deprecated practice. The document reports that “since the 1930s, more than 38 per cent of ancient woodland in England and Wales has been felled and converted to plantations and a further eight per cent cleared for agriculture”.

In contrast, the Trust’s review sees the 1990s as “a change for the better”, but nevertheless warns that “our surviving ancient woods are still under threat”. Certainly, I think that we have seen off the menace of further coniferisation, but that has been replaced by an increasing risk from development projects, of which HS2 is, of course, only one example. I think that we should view the Trust’s current ringing of an alarm bell as a warning that we might be slipping back to the old ways of wholesale destruction.

As Joni Mitchell’s song says, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

PS: I can’t resist bringing to your attention an environmental metaphor, of the type that we have become familiar with from the Environmental Statement, trotted out to the Commons HS2 Select Committee by the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, and to be found in the (uncorrected) transcript for the morning of Wednesday 22 October 2014:

  1. [MR MOULD QC (DfT):] …in order to carry out the earthworks, it’s necessary to impinge into a section of Roundhill Wood.
  2. SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Sorry, ‘impinge’ means destroy.
  3. MR MOULD QC (DfT): [in a jocular fashion] Yes, cut down, but we know what we mean.

Oh yes Mr Mould, we know what you mean, and so, it appears, does Sir Peter.

Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 4

(… continued from Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 3, posted on 22 Oct 2014).

After a period of very indifferent weather in the days leading up to the visit to the Kenilworth and Southam constituency by Members of the HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee, the sun came out for the afternoon they were coming to visit us in Cubbington. This was an unexpected bonus; the wet-weather plans could be shelved and I could be confident that Warwickshire’s countryside would look its very best for our visitors.

When I was on the way to meet the coach I received a SMS to say that the tour was running forty-five minutes behind schedule, and so I was able to return home to do the bulk of the wait for the coach to arrive in comfort, rather than standing by the roadside. I was, of course, also able to filter that message down, so that others could be spared a long wait in similar circumstances.

By the time that the coach arrived at my agreed pickup point, it was fifty minutes behind schedule. Since it was almost 4pm by then, this didn’t seem to be too far off plan, and there was no suggestion that any changes needed to be made to shorten our local programme. As it was, our section of the tour was just about completed, at a fairly leisurely pace, in the hour allowed.

When I boarded the coach I was directed to the seat directly behind the driver; the window seat of the pair was occupied by Sir Peter Bottomley MP. Sitting on the other side of the aisle in the front seat was an engineer from HS2 Ltd who I knew from the community forums. He handed me the microphone and I was off. To my surprise I was left to make my commentary without interruption or contradiction; the HS2 Ltd engineer made only a couple of comments, aimed at clarifying current location. The need to do this was something that I quickly latched on to for my own commentary. The Members of the Committee had been provided, presumably by HS2 Ltd, with A3 booklets of aerial photographs, annotated with details of the HS2 route. I noticed that Sir Peter was paying close attention to his copy as we travelled around, and assumed that his fellow members were doing the same. It is, accordingly, a good idea, if you are called upon to provide a commentary yourself, to include information to assist the Members to follow the route that the coach is taking on their maps.

Our first port of call was to park opposite some cottages that would be virtually surrounded by HS2 construction, but that have been excluded from the safeguarded zone and are more than 120 metres from the track centreline and do not, therefore, qualify for the express purchase or voluntary purchase schemes. Bob, one of the owners here who has petitioned, runs a falconry experience business and, in addition to the impact that HS2 will have on his home, it will devastate his business; it will be impossible to fly his falcons in the fields around his home as he does now, and he will be forced to move, although no help with the costs of this has been offered to him.

The itinerary only provided for a brief stop here, just long enough for the Members to view the property from the coach and hear about Bob’s plight from me. However, Bob and I hatched a plan. When the coach arrived, Bob would be standing at his gate with a falcon on his arm in the hope that this would tempt the MPs off the coach to talk to him. However, our planned duplicity went pear-shaped; I, and I assume the MPs who were all sitting at the front of the coach, couldn’t see Bob from where we were parked, so the planned temptation of a hawk in the hand was not presented to the MPs and nobody suggested getting off the coach.

Our tour continued, using a rather round-about route, but with the aim of taking the party along the proposed construction traffic route to demonstrate its unsuitability, as we see it. A stop at an affected farm then gave the MPs the chance to talk to the owners, which they appeared to appreciate. We then moved on to another farm where the 4×4 vehicles were waiting for us. Before we transferred to these, the MPs had the opportunity to talk to members of the farm-owning family (see the photograph below).

At the farm (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

At the farm (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

It took some time to shepherd everyone who was coming up to the pear tree into the 4x4s – everybody seemed to be quite happy to stay chatting in the farmyard. The photograph below shows the party taking the short walk from where we dropped them to the tree. South Cubbington Wood is to the right of the walkers and part of the pear tree is visible at the left-hand side of the image. The wooden post that I have indicated is one of three that we put up on the day to illustrate the width of the strip that HS2 would take from the wood.

Walking to the pear tree (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

Walking to the pear tree (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

I was pleased with the level of informality that characterised the day, which extended to a “dress down” approach by some of our visitors. The photograph below shows the gathering by the wild pear tree, including Robert Syms MP (1), Sir Peter Bottomley MP (2), Jeremy Wright MP (3) and your blogger in characteristic pose with mouth open (4).

Gathering at the pear tree (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

Gathering at the pear tree (Photo: Frances Wilmot)

After a brief commune with nature we all returned to the coach and set off for the neighbouring parish of Offchurch where I, reluctantly, relinquished my temporary tour guide duties. I was very happy with the visit. I feel that the Members of the Committee showed a genuine interest in, and were sympathetic to, what we showed them. I also feel that having first met them in an informal setting will make the upcoming hearing procedures at Westminster much less stressful.

Finally, I can’t resist posting the photograph below, which was grabbed by one of the members of Weston under Wetherley Parish Council, and hope that Sir Peter will not mind. I am sure that, as he has reached the venerable age of seventy and has been a Member of the House of Commons since 1975, he will not object to being referred to as a “veteran” in the caption to the image.

One veteran contemplating another (Photo: Peter Haine)

One veteran contemplating another (Photo: Peter Haine)

PS: Good luck to all who will be taking part in the next scheduled Select Committee away day, due to take place in Northamptonshire the day after this blog is first posted. May the weather be kind to you all.

Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 3

(… continued from Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 2, posted on 18 Oct 2014).

One of the pieces of advice that I took away from my meeting with Jeremy Wright MP and Warwickshire District Council was that, if we wanted to provide handouts for the members of the Select Committee to take away with them, then we needed to provide something that could be easily pocketed. Glossy brochures might look good, action group representatives were told, but the risk of handouts not being retained by Members of the Select Committee would increase with each gram of weight of paper.

Our response was for the three parishes in our community forum area to work together on a simple handout, occupying two sheets of A4 stapled together and folded in three to make it jacket inside pocket size. One of these sheets was printed on each side with the annotated “as built” maps that we produced for the display board. The second sheet had the graph showing the trackbed height increases on one side and, on the other side, a summary of the issues raised in the five petitions deposited by our community organisations and the remedies that we seek.

Another tip was to plan for a rainy day. As soon as the designated Tuesday started to appear in weather forecasts I was checking them regularly. The pièce de résistance of the Cubbington tour was intended to be the trip out to the veteran pear tree and the view across the valley. This part of the plan was extremely vulnerable to wind and rain; I really didn’t think that I would manage to persuade anybody to stand on the top of the hill overlooking the valley in a downpour, and the view would not have been very spectacular in the circumstances. So my plan B was to shelter in a barn at the farm where we proposed to park the coach and would otherwise have started the 4×4 journey to the pear tree. There we would be able at least to talk about what our visitors would have seen in better weather. We also made a short video of what they would have seen, which would be running when they reached Offchurch village hall, and then, of course, there were photographs on the display board there.

In the hope that I would at least get to share the microphone on the coach, I prepared some notes for a commentary in advance. I tried to make these as factual, and seemingly unbiased, as I could, concentrating on details of the HS2 design such as height, width and area, spiced up with a little on impacts and property blight. I took on board another tip that I had been given, which was to express size information by comparison with things that we are all familiar with. So, for example, I said that the width of the proposed cutting that would consume the veteran pear tree, at 110 metres, was the length of an international football pitch, and that its depth of 12 metres would allow three double-decker buses to be stacked up in it with them only protruding about one metre – I learnt from a Google search that a double-decker is typically 4.38 metres high. Another example of this that I used was saying that a proposed material transfer stockpile, occupying about 5 ha, was covering three and a half times the area of the cricket ground at Lords – this Google revealed to me is 1.43 ha.

Driving home the message

Driving home the message

The poster above, which is one that I included on the display board at Offchurch village hall, shows this technique in action; I think that it gets the message across very powerfully.

My final act of preparation recognised that we couldn’t rely on the itinerary for timings on the day, and that many people could be kept waiting if the programme slipped. So I agreed with one of the people who would be on the bus all day to send SMS updates on timing to me. That would allow me to alert a number of strategically selected people who could, in turn, pass the message on.

(To be concluded …)

Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 2

(… continued from Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 1, posted on 14 Oct 2014).

The biggest problem with multi-site visits of the type that Members of the HS2 Select Committee are undertaking, in their mission to visit communities along the length of the HS2 Phase 1 route, is time constraints. There has been, initially at least, a tendency to over-estimate what can be achieved in a day, particularly with the nights drawing in now, and there are any number of ways that delays can occur on the day to put the whole programme at risk. When I was first told about the proposed visit to Cubbington I was advised that I should plan for the Committee to be with us for twenty to thirty minutes. The itinerary that I had in mind at that stage, which was really the bare minimum, would have been a bit of a squeeze to fit into such a brief visit, to say the least. So I was very relieved to learn, just a few days after the initial meeting with our Member of Parliament had taken place, that there had been a rethink on how much to cram into the first day of the visit, and that our allocation of time in Cubbington had been increased to one hour. This meant that not only could I feel more confident in achieving my programme, but it was possible to squeeze in a further visit that was really a priority but had been sacrificed as being impossible within the original time allocation.

The moral is that if you don’t think that the schedule proposed by the Private Bill Office is feasible, then say so.

With the route to be taken and the sights to be seen being settled, it was then vital to make all the necessary arrangements and ensure that we were fully prepared to get the best out of the visit. This entailed more than just seeking the agreement of landowners, lining up residents prepared to talk to the MPs and arranging for 4×4 vehicles, and drivers, to be available.

One topic that exercised our action group was, bearing in mind the guidelines that we had been given about how residents should conduct themselves in talking with the MPs and HS2 Ltd representatives, how we could control this situation to ensure that the right message was conveyed and that things did not get out of hand? In particular, we felt that we did not want too many residents to take part, risking a disorderly gathering, but, on the other hand, did not want so few residents present as to give the impression of a lack of interest in the local community. The itinerary, which had been published on the Select Committee’s website and so was in the public domain anyway, only provided one possibility for public access to the MPs and that was by the wild pear tree, which is on a public footpath but is about ten minutes’ walk from our village and the nearest road. So we decided to compromise by e-mailing everyone on our contact list with the details and a brief summary of how to conduct themselves – what the e-mail described as “a few pointers for the visit”.

One item of advice that I had been given was to ensure that all points where the proposed route would cross roads over which the Committee’s coach would pass were clearly marked – there are three such crossings in our area and the route planned for the coach would take in all three. Almost since our group was formed, we have ensured that roadside posters have been displayed at these crossings, and these have become a “permanent” reminder for our residents and visitors. These are, of necessity, set back from the roadside, fixed to convenient trees, gates and posts. We felt that we needed something more obvious for the MPs’ visit, and one member of our Group’s management committee and a neighbour of his spent some time on the day before the visit, in not too pleasant weather, putting up temporary signs right at the roadside and stringing out tape – see the photograph below – and went out again soon after the visit to remove all the detritus so that we didn’t get into trouble with the police or local authorities.

Temporary road crossing markers

Temporary road crossing markers

We were also advised that a display board had gone down well with the Members of the Committee on a previous visit and we felt that we should copy this idea. The answer to the problem of where to site a display board was provided by our neighbours in Offchurch. They were planning to unload the coach at their village hall, to give the visitors a comfort break and a chance to talk to local residents, and generously offered us space on a board that they would be setting up in the hall.

As it turned out, the display board became a joint effort with Offchurch, and with our neighbours from Weston under Wetherley also involved. The exhibits included sections of HS2 Ltd “as built” maps annotated to show issues and proposed solutions, a graph showing how the trackbed height throughout our community forum area has been increased significantly since the 2011 consultation – something that I moaned about in my blog A change of heart (posted 18 Apr 2013) – and some photographs, including spring flowers in South Cubbington Wood and the veteran wild pear tree in blossom.

Gathered around the display board in Offchurch village hall

Gathered around the display board in Offchurch village hall

This board appeared to be a success on the day, and one of the MPs even asked for a short presentation of what it contained. The photograph above shows Offchurch HS2 Action Group Chairman Professor Mike Geddes, who blogs on HS2: The Regional Impact, responding to this request. Committee Chairman, Robert Syms MP, is immediately to the left of Mike in the image, in the blue coat.

(To be continued …)

Westminster comes to Cubbington, part 1

For their third trip out of Westminster to familiarise themselves with the proposed route of HS2 Phase 1, the Members of the HS2 Select Committee, plus an entourage of HS2 Ltd employees and others and all ensconced in a coach, visited south Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, over two days. The itinerary published for this visit included an hour to be spent in my home parish of Cubbington.

The arrangements for such trips are at the discretion of the Chairman of the Select Committee, but the preparation of proposals for a provisional programme to be put to him fell to the Commons Private Bill Office, and the staff there, in turn, consulted the Member of Parliament for my area, Jeremy Wright. It was fortunate that Mr Wright considered that it would be prudent to consult the action groups in his constituency about what the Members of the Select Committee should see to make the best use of their time.

So it was that action group representatives, including your blogger, were invited to Mr Wright’s constituency office a little more than three weeks before the visit was due to take place to discuss what we all wanted the Committee to see in our respective local patches. As you may imagine, there was also a fair degree of subsequent e-mail and telephone traffic to fine tune the details right up to the eve of the visit.

My priority for the time spent in Cubbington was to get the Members, at least, to a point in our countryside where they would be on the actual line of route. The best location for this was under the veteran wild pear tree, which has the dual advantages of commanding excellent views across the valley of the River Leam, which HS2 would cross, and being close to the ancient woodland that would be destroyed in South Cubbington Wood. The logistical problem that this posed was that it is a ten-minute walk, each way, from the nearest point accessible by coach. Rather than require the members of the party to slog out and back by foot, and consume valuable time, I proposed that we would provide 4×4 vehicles to give at least the MPs and House of Commons staff a ride in each direction.

This simple proposal turned out to be not so simple, as doubts were expressed about whether MPs would be able to accept lifts from strangers, and, we were told, it would definitely be against HS2 Ltd corporate policy for any employees to take up our transport offer. However, we arranged for vehicles to be available and kept our fingers crossed, and it all worked out on the day.

One of the suggestions that Mr Wright made to the Public Bill Office was that one member of each action group should be allowed to board the coach and act as a guide for the tour through its area. Again, nobody was sure whether this would be allowed, as we had heard that HS2 Ltd preferred to describe the route to the Committee. However, permission for this was granted, although it was not clear precisely what would happen on the coach – would we be fighting HS2 Ltd for control of the microphone, I wondered?

We were fortunate that action groups were due to meet Warwickshire County Council officers and councillors at one of the regular liaison meetings that are held on HS2. One of the Council’s officers had been involved in the previous Select Committee visit to north Warwickshire and she was able to give us some tips about how to present ourselves to the Committee. She had also been present at the earlier meeting in Jeremy Wright’s office.

The advice that we received was that the purpose of the visit was to enable the Members of the Select Committee to experience the lie of the land to assist them with the assessments that they would be called upon to make when our petitions were heard. We were told that we should not consider the visit as an “opportunity to lobby” the Committee, but that Members would be interested to hear the views of local residents. However, we were also warned that “organised moans” and demonstrations of any kind might be counter-productive, and should be avoided and that any barracking of or rudeness to any members of the visiting party was “unlikely to impress the committee”.

It was also impressed upon us that we should organise ourselves to ensure that our concerns were expressed clearly, and that we made sure that we explained our own proposals for improving the situation. To this end, we were advised to nominate a spokesperson, or persons, to lead and “monopolise” any discussions that took place with members of our community. It was stressed to us that any consideration of the rights and wrongs of the HS2 project were outside of the remit of the Select Committee, and that, accordingly, Members would not want to hear representations that it should not go ahead.

(To be continued …)

So it’s not just me then, part 3

(… continued from So it’s not just me then, part 2, posted on 6 Oct 2014).

In the first two parts of this short blog series I have given examples where petitioners have regarded their dealings with HS2 Ltd as unsatisfactory and, judging by these examples, the chances of securing many of the design and mitigation improvements that communities are seeking, and HS2 Ltd says that it is looking to adopt (see footnote), seem pretty slim. However, since the HS2 Select Committee has become involved there are signs that things may be improving on this front.

Even in the example of the petition hearing about Washwood Heath that I discussed in part 2 of this blog series a small chink of light appeared in that both parties agreed to a further interchange of “factual information” before the Select Committee is called upon to “express a view” about the matter. However, I think that it would be wildly optimistic to expect much change in the fairly entrenched positions taken by both parties.

Nevertheless, there are some indications that negotiations are being held with petitioners behind the scenes, and that a degree of agreement has been achieved. The problem in assessing the extent of the successful negotiation is that these talks are being carried out away from the public gaze. The Select Committee does not publish a list of petitioners that have resolved matters with HS2 Ltd, nor does it comment on the progress of negotiations. The only indication that we have of what might be going is the number of public sessions of the Select Committee that are scheduled but are not subsequently held, and petitioners who are scheduled in a session that is held but then do not appear. Apart from a couple of tweets announcing that sessions “will not take place because of negotiations between the petitioners and HS2 Ltd”, the Committee appears willing to leave us to speculate on the outcome of petitions that are not aired, or commented on, in its public sessions.

It is clear, however, that the sessions scheduled to hear petitions in two days in July and in September have been severely disrupted by petitioners electing to withdraw, or possibly only defer, from having their petitions heard as scheduled. There were twenty-one sessions (morning, afternoon or evening) scheduled over this period. Eleven of these sessions were either cancelled outright or did not hear any of the petitions scheduled. Four of these cancelled sessions were explained as being due to “negotiations between the petitioner and HS2 Ltd” in tweets sent by the Committee. The reason for the cancellation of two further sessions also being down to the progress of negotiations was stated, or may be inferred by statements made, in the session previous. The remaining sessions were cancelled without explanation.

Over this period, by my count, nine petitions were heard. This number is somewhat outweighed by the sixteen petitions that have appeared on the Committee’s schedules at some time, but were not, in the event, heard. This must surely indicate that negotiations in the Birmingham area have, in many cases, either secured an outcome that is satisfactory to both the petitioning party and HS2 Ltd, or that at least negotiations are heading in the right direction and are worth sticking with. Perhaps HS2 Ltd is taking a more conciliatory approach to its dealings with petitioners than has been evident in the dismal “community engagement” exercise that preceded petitioning.

However, in the absence of any real feedback from the Committee it is rather difficult to make a judgement on how successful negotiations have been. We only have details of the offer made to a petitioner in the case of the connected submissions by Birmingham City Council and Centro, and that is only because Birmingham City Council has published an announcement that provides this information. I mention this in my blog Lessons from history, part 15 (posted 31 Aug 2014) and speculate therein that the Birmingham City Council and Centro petitions had been withdrawn in accordance with the confirmation requested in a letter detailing the concessions agreed sent on behalf of HS2 Ltd. I have since been told, by a local government source, that hearing the petitions is merely deferred, so perhaps we will still get to see these two petitioners pleading their case to the Select Committee.

Perhaps the most promising sign yet of a change of attitude on the part of HS2 Ltd comes in an announcement that was issued virtually as I was putting this blog together. It appears that the Transport Secretary has approved a change to the design of HS2 Phase 1 near Lichfield. The proposal provides for the lowering of the track to allow it to pass under, rather than over, the A38, the West Coast Main Line and the Staffordshire Line and changing the alignment – I assume the horizontal alignment – to remove two crossings of the Trent and Mersey Canal. The announcement attributes this change to “partnership working between HS2 Ltd and Staffordshire County Council” and acknowledges that these changes “reflect what many local residents and stakeholders, including the Canal & Rivers Trust, requested during the petitioning process”. The announcement makes no reference to what this change means to the cost of building that route section, but it seems unlikely that this will be a cost-saving amendment.

There are, however, indications that HS2 Ltd is being selective in applying its newly-found largesse. Reports from a couple of action groups at the northern end of line indicate that meetings that they have been invited to attend by HS2 Ltd to discuss their petitions have been totally unproductive. It appears that HS2 Ltd has only been sending junior staff to such meetings with no real intention of proposing any changes to HS2 in response to petitioning points. Just like the community forum process before it, these “petition negotiations” are being described by local community participants as a “box ticking” exercise.

Footnote: In paragraph 1.3.1 of HS2 Ltd’s Information Paper G1 one of the aims of the consultation and engagement process is identified as:

“To develop an improved scheme and propose steps to avoid, reduce or, where reasonably practicable, off-set any significant adverse effects that have been identified.”

So it’s not just me then, part 2

(… continued from So it’s not just me then, part 1, posted on 2 Oct 2014).

As one might expect from such a seasoned politician, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Hodge Hill, the Rt Hon Liam Byrne, treated the Members of the HS2 Select Committee to an assured performance when he appeared before them on the morning of Wednesday 3rd September 2014. Mr Byrne was appearing as a witness for Friends Life Ltd and Axa Real Estate Investment Managers Ltd at the hearing of petition 0295 . This petition objects to the plans in the Phase 1 hybrid Bill to locate the rolling-stock maintenance depot for HS2 at Washwood Heath in Birmingham, which would entail the compulsory purchase of approximately 25ha of land intended for employment development that is currently owned by Friends Life and managed by Axa.

Mr Byrne is involved in this matter because Washwood Heath lies within his constituency, and, according to his evidence, “it’s in the middle of what is the worst unemployment black spot in the entire country” (paragraph 55 of the transcript). He explained to the Committee that since 2010, when the liquidation of LDV made the site occupied by the van builder available, he has been promoting the use of the Washwood Heath site for employment development, which he described as “the opportunity to create a fabulously connected site that could be home to 4,000 jobs” (paragraph 57). These plans had been stymied by the safeguarding of land for the HS2 depot. He credited this intervention by HS2 Ltd as one that would “destroy 1,300 jobs almost immediately”, because the HS2 plans require some businesses currently on the site to relocate out of Mr Byrne’s constituency. He characterised the HS2 project as offering, in return, “the promise of 650 jobs in a decade’s time, if we’re lucky” (paragraph 59).

To use a phrase that appears to be in vogue at the moment, Friends Life and Axa appear to have gotten all of their ducks in a row in promoting their petition. The case they were making was supported by detailed written evidence identifying two alternative sites where the maintenance depot could be located rather than Washwood Heath, and they put up three experts to give oral evidence to the Select Committee: one on rail operational issues, another on the economic and job consequences, and a third on the planning and the market for the site and the planning ability to assemble the site. This evidence included support for their claim that there were substantial capital savings, perhaps in excess of £100million, to be gained from moving away from Washwood Heath (paragraph 226).

It was clear that Mr Byrne felt that HS2 Ltd had not given the alternative proposals suggested by Friends Life and Axa sufficient consideration; he expressed his frustration with the Company’s “refusal to go into any kind of detail around alternatives” (paragraph 106). In fact, it appeared that Mr Byrne felt that HS2 Ltd was closing its corporate mind to the possibility that someone else could have come up with a better way of doing things. He accused the Company of having “locked itself into a position which, foolishly, it’s trying to defend, rather than thinking constructively about different options …” (paragraph 107).

Confirmation of the reluctance of the HS2 Ltd corporate juggernaut to change course was amply provided on the day that followed Mr Byrne’s appearance, when Timothy Smart, International Director for High Speed Rail at CH2M Hill, but seconded to HS2 Ltd as head of engineering and operations, gave evidence against the petition. During his examination-in-chief he gave examples of operational inefficiencies that would result if the location of the maintenance depot was changed. It was suggested to him in cross-examination that the inefficiency of having to run trains to and from northern destinations into Curzon Street before they could access the depot would be avoided if one of the alternative sites was used and HS2 Ltd were to “alter the timetable”. Mr Smart almost seemed incredulous at the very suggestion, saying that it was “not the basis of the timetable” (paragraph 308 of the transcript). He added, should further proof of the corporate intransigence be required (paragraph 310):

“… yes, if you were going to change the whole circulation and the whole way that High Speed 2 operates as a train service, then clearly you would be able to look at other depots, but we are looking at the circulation plan which achieves the requirements that we are trying to achieve.”

The reaction of Mr Smart’s inquisitor, David Elvin QC, to this was to put it to Mr Smart that his answer resulted from the adoption “for several years” by HS2 Ltd of Washwood Heath as “preferred depot” and that, consequently, HS2 Ltd had “designed [its] timetable around” this assumption (paragraph 311).

In my view, both Mr Byrne’s and Mr Elvin’s observations prompt the question of why HS2 Ltd should, apparently, be so unwilling to consider suggestions for improving HS2. In the past I felt that much of this could well be down to the need to get a design, no matter how suboptimal (to use the word coined by Sir David Higgins about the HS2-HS1 link), into the hybrid Bill within a very demanding timescale. However, that was achieved, and now surely there is time for more measured reflection on how things could be changed for the better whilst there is still time. I can only think that the apparent continuing reluctance to do this is due, in some part, to corporate arrogance and an entrenched “not invented here” syndrome.

(To be concluded …)



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