Giving due consideration, part 1

An exchange took place recently during the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee that illustrates perfectly why the hybrid Bill procedure is failing to provide adequate protection to our environment from the impacts of the HS2 project. It arose during the cross-examination by Tim Mould QC, Lead Counsel for the Promoter, of Mr Ray Payne, a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board, who was giving evidence for the Board’s petition (see footnote 1).

The subject of the discussion between these two gentlemen was the approach to be taken by decision makers in considering development proposals within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) document. Paragraph 115 of the NPPF identifies AONBs, along with National Parks and the Broads, as having “the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty” and, accordingly, merits them worthy of being given “great weight” when it comes to “conserving landscape and scenic beauty”. Paragraph 116 sets out how requests for planning permission should be considered in this context by those charged with granting or refusing such permission, and I give the full text of this paragraph below:

“116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:

  • the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
  • the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way; and
  • any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.”

Using one of those archaic terms that only lawyers see fit to employ, Mr Mould acknowledged that paragraphs 115 and 116 “set the approach” to protecting the Chilterns AONB that both the Chilterns Conservation Board and his client “pray and aid”. What Mr Mould set out to do, apparently with some success, was to convince Mr Payne, and in consequence the Members of the Select Committee, that the Promoter had satisfied the strictures of the NPPF within the hybrid Bill scheme.

Mr Mould may have been successful in getting Mr Payne, facing the rigours of cross-examination, to concede the point, but I am far from convinced that the intentions of the NPPF have been respected in the Promoter’s actions and the hybrid Bill processes, including examination by the Select Committee.

Mr Mould’s approach was to take the three bullet points of paragraph 116 in order.

His position on the first bullet point was that “the need for the development” had “been established by the decision of the House [of Commons] to give the Bill a second reading”, and Mr Payne concurred. Mr Mould is, as one would expect, correct – at least in constitution terms – in his interpretation of the significance of the Bill being given a second reading in April 2014, and Members of Parliament were informed by the Transport Secretary, when he opened the debate on that occasion, that one of the functions of the hybrid Bill was to ask Parliament “to grant planning permission” for Phase 1 of HS2 (see footnote 2). It is therefore relevant to consider whether Parliament, in its role as surrogate planning authority, gave due consideration to the requirements of paragraph 116 of the NPPF in its deliberations that day.

The overriding objection that I have concerning the way in which planning decisions are determined by the hybrid bill process is that it does not provide the level of scrutiny and review that one would expect from a public inquiry led by an independent planning inspector. This is clearly demonstrated by the circumstances in which the agreement by the House of Commons was given that the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill “be read a second time”.

In the first place, unlike a public planning inquiry, the outcome of the HS2 Second reading debate was, to a high degree of certainty, pre-determined by the three-line whips that were imposed by the Government and main Opposition parties; this racing certainty was even acknowledged by HS2 opponent the Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP in her contribution to the debate, who told Members “for once Goliath [i.e. the Government] is going to win” (see footnote 3).

Secondly, the extent of the debate was curtailed by time pressure. Only a single day was allocated to the Second Reading, although business was extended by an hour, and time was lost on the day to some emergency business. This meant that backbench speeches were limited to five minutes, with the final handful further curtailed to four minutes, and some backbenchers, including the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, were unable to complete their contributions.

Thirdly, as is normal with such debates, only a minority of those who voted were present in the Chamber during the debate. The video of the debate indicates that attendance, at peak, probably did not amount to one hundred Members, and was considerably fewer at most times (see footnote 4).

Fourthly, although the impact on the Chilterns AONB was mentioned in the reasoned amendment tabled by Cheryl Gillan as one of the reasons why the House should decline to give the Bill a second reading, it was only actually referred to in the speeches by her and one other backbencher. At no point was any mention made of the requirements of paragraph 116 of the NPPF, and the tests of whether there were “exceptional circumstances” and a “need for the development” that justified encroaching on the AONB were not considered.

Finally, the effect of this flawed process was to limit further consideration in committee to making changes to the design deposited by the Promoter, making further consideration of the “need for development” test, as Mr Mould was claiming, effectively closed off.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. The exchange took place during the public session held by the HS2 Select Committee on the afternoon of Monday 13thJuly 2015. The relevant passage is recorded from paragraph 228 of the transcript, and may be viewed from 15:15 hrs in the video of the session.
  2. Refer to column 567 in the House of Commons Official Report for Monday, 28thApril 2014.
  3. Refer to column 586 in the House of Commons Official Report for Monday, 28thApril 2014.
  4. The debate runs from 16:39 hrs in the video.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

Policy matters

The Chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins, recently addressed a conference organised in London by the Urban Land Institute (see footnote 1). According to a report of his presentation, Sir David confided to his audience that the promoters of HS2 “had failed to answer the fundamental question: why”.

I don’t often find myself in agreement with the Wizard of Oz, but this time I think that he has got it in one. He doesn’t have to look too far either for an example of a poor case being made for HS2. His own letter to the Financial Times recently made a series of unsubstantiated claims that I found far too easy to rebuff with a few easily-found facts (see footnote 2).

I don’t think, however, that Sir David should beat himself up too much about the poor showing he, and the project’s coterie of highly-paid PR merchants, have made in this respect. It could be that there just isn’t a believable case that can be made why the UK needs HS2. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which spin doctors are employed, even if they are expert practitioners of their trade, making HS2 seem a sensible proposition could just be an unachievable aim. Yet, politicians and others still seem to be willing to queue up to mouth the ludicrous claims contained in Government briefing papers, and risk putting their own credibility in jeopardy in the process.

A recent opinion piece by John Kay in the Financial Times develops a plausible theory to explain why the political class has clasped the HS2 viper to its collective bosom without being able to make a cogent case why the UK needs the project (see footnote 3). In this article, Mr Kay recalls asking a friend who worked in 10 Downing Street during the 1980s privatisation craze, just what was the rationale behind the, then, new big idea in economic policy. Mr Kay’s friend explained that his question betrayed a misunderstanding of “the nature of modern politics”. He elucidated:

“The policy is the policy because it is the policy. There is no more and no less to it than that.”

Whilst you might think that this theory is a sad reflection on the intelligence of the Westminster crowd, it does offer a rational explanation of the pro-HS2 phenomenon that we have witnessed in the past five years, or so. The article succinctly summarises the way in which the theory predicts that political support for a policy builds up:

“Projects acquire political momentum of their own. The original rationale is forgotten, if indeed it ever existed. Even those whose support was only lukewarm respond to criticism by becoming ever more committed advocates. They seize on whatever arguments are to hand to justify their position.”

In his article, Mr Kay charts the course that justification for the HS2 project has taken: conceived by a Labour government, according to Lord Mandelson, “as an infrastructure project to lift the economy out of the recession” despite having a lead time that made any such aspiration impossible; taken up by the incoming coalition government as a largely unexplained quid pro quo for dropping Heathrow runway expansion (an alternative that did not persuade the Davies Commission); justified by a business plan that relies heavily on business time savings, despite an increasing tendency for such travellers to make productive use of time spent on trains, as can be evidenced on any peak-time train service; a shift in emphasis to the additional capacity that HS2 would provide; and, a very contentious claim that HS2 would fuel economic regeneration of the provinces.

Mr Kay also cites the inquiry into HS2 by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, whose output he describes generally as “models of bipartisan investigation by intelligent people genuinely trying to ascertain the truth”, finding that “the Government has not made a convincing case for why this particular project should go ahead” and describing the analysis presented to justify the project as “seriously deficient” (see footnote 4). So the Lords EAC appears to have reached the same conclusion as Sir David Higgins; the question “why HS2?” has not been satisfactorily answered.

Mr Kay’s conclusion is that, the HS2 project is an example that follows his friend’s theory that “the policy is the policy because it is the policy”.

As he declares:

“There is no more or less to it than that”.

Footnotes:

  1. The conference Investing in Density – Concentrate or Miss Out was held on 22ndand 23rd June 2015. Sir David’s presentation was on the second day.
  2. See my eight-part blog series Paxo stuffing, beginning here.
  3. The article was published on 30thJune 2015, but is behind a paywall. I have not been able to locate a free-access version of the article.
  4. See paragraph 11 in the Our main conclusions and recommendations section of the Lords Environmental Audit Committee report The Economics of High Speed 2.

A scintilla of doubt

In my blog Unfinished business, part 2 (posted 26 May 2015) I expressed the opinion that the HS2 Select Committee “should appoint its own expert advisers in the main disciplines for which it is called upon to rule” rather than rely too heavily on the submissions made by HS2 Ltd in exhibits and the testimony of its witnesses. I was pleased to see recently that a petitioner expressed similar sentiments in the evidence that he presented during his hearing in front of the Committee, and was encouraged that the petitioner, being a fellow Member of Parliament, was perhaps someone who the Committee might feel inclined to take notice of.

The petitioner to whom I refer is Nick Hurd, MP for Ruislip-Northwood, and he raised the question of the reliability of HS2 Ltd’s evidence in the context of his constituents’ request for the Northolt tunnel to be extended under West Ruislip, Ickenham, South Harefield and the main body of the Colne Valley (see footnote). In particular, a couple of weeks previously the Select Committee had heard several hours of testimony from expert witnesses put up by Hillingdon London Borough Council in support of two reports by consultants that the council has commissioned. The first of these reports, written by Peter Brett Associates, is an engineering feasibility and outline costing study of the tunnelling proposal, and the second, prepared by Regeneris, examines the true cost of the negative impacts that the surface route proposal would have on the borough.

The Select Committee sessions in which the Council case was heard turned out to be a classic example of the problem that I identify in Unfinished business, part 2 of the non-expert Members of the Committee being presented with “conflicting testimony from the experts put up by either party”. HS2 Ltd put up its own report on the tunnel proposal in which technical, constructional, risk, operational and maintenance issues are identified, as well as a “substantial cost difference”.

In his evidence, Mr Hurd indicated that he thought that the HS2 Ltd engineers may have been operating under the instruction to “dump as much manure as you can on Hillingdon Council’s proposal”. He said that unless “orders were changed” and HS2 Ltd engineers were told instead “Actually, we want you to look at this seriously”, then “none of us have good enough information on which to base a judgment about the value for money of a tunnel extension” (paragraph 22).

He made a direct appeal to his fellow MPs on the Committee (paragraph 35):

“… please make sure that you have a proper basis of comparing the costs and benefits of the different alternatives presented to you. I put it to you – some of you have been Ministers – I don’t think any Minister would ever, or should ever, take a decision based on the quality of information that you’ve been presented with.”

A point that he underlined in response to a question from Committee Member Henry Bellingham MP (paragraph 42);

“… I don’t think the Committee has been presented with good enough evidence about the relative costs of the options before you in order to form a reasonable and final judgment.”

And it was Mr Bellingham who was the first to acknowledge the sense in what Mr Hurd was saying. He described his proposition as “a powerful point” (paragraph 43) and agreed that, “It would be good to have some proper facts before us” (paragraph 45).

Ian Mearns MP agreed with his fellow Member (paragraph 56):

“I suppose one question would be: if we’re to have a proper cross-examination of the evidence from HS2, the promoter, as to the costs, how are we going to facilitate that? That needs to be conducted by a third-party body.”

And (paragraph 59):

“I think the problem is we do need technical expertise to properly cross-examine that evidence from HS2. That’s the problem I think that we have.”

Further support for independent technical analysis being sought by the Committee came from no less a person than Boris Johnson MP, who was serving as Mr Hurd’s witness (paragraph 57):

“I think that’s a very good idea. It might well be possible to find an independent consultant or expert who could give an evaluation of those costs.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the proceedings in Committee Room 5 that it was Sir Peter Bottomley MP who poured cold water on this new-found enthusiasm for independent technical advice, apparently acting in his usual capacity of ensuring that progress on clearing petitions is not hampered wherever possible (paragraph 61).

“I think any kind of major re-examination by other people is going to take far too long and will leave too many things, in my view, undetermined. What I think might be a practical thought – and I don’t want an instant answer from HS2 or the Government on this – is whether someone could get together the Peter Brett people, the Hillingdon people and the HS2 people and see how much is actually agreed and disagreed as a pretty rough job and where the areas of uncertainty are, and where people are willing to accept there’s a range of options.”

Tim Mould QC was apparently keen to seize on the opportunity that Sir Peter’s comment offered to avoid having his client’s homework checked (paragraph 66):

“Sir Peter’s point, if I may say so, is very well made, with respect; we cannot allow this to drag on. This Committee will want to make a decision, and so, if we are to have further conversations, they need to take place quickly.”

Significantly, the Chairman, Robert Syms MP, made no comment on the proposal to seek independent expert advice, and I fear that the brief opportunity that had arisen to equip the HS2 Select Committee with the information needed to do other than a purely perfunctory job may have evaporated into the Westminster air.

Footnote: Mr Hurd’s session in front of the HS2 Select Committee took place on the morning of Wednesday 1st July 2015 and starts at 9:34 in the video. The paragraph numbers given in parenthesis above refer to the transcript of the session.

PS: Since I penned this blog a statement by the Chairman of the Select Committee has confirmed that my pessimistic conclusion was justified. The statement advises that the Select Committee “do not direct further studies” of the costs of the Hillingdon tunnel alternative.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

Camden contemplations

The oil that lubricates our political system is confrontation. In the House of Commons the protagonists face each other, gladiator-like, on benches with the front rows separated at two sword lengths by red lines woven into the carpet – yes I know that this seating arrangement originated from the Commons occupying a royal chapel in the old Palace of Westminster, but the layout was retained by our Victorian predecessors when they rebuilt after the fire of 1834, deeming it appropriate. It is also significant that those who take the whip of the main political party occupying the benches to the left of Mr Speaker are termed “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”. Without effective opposition the important function of the Commons to scrutinise government legislative proposals is severely compromised.

I have in the past (see footnote 1) expressed concern that this is precisely what has happened in the case of the HS2 project. I despair that the cosy alliance of all three main parties in the last parliament has allowed a very sub-optimal proposal to be under consideration by our legislature without effective challenge. My passage through this personal slough of despond has, however, been eased a little by some ostensibly off-the-cuff comments made recently by Labour leadership contender and MP for Leigh (in Greater Manchester), Andy Burnham.

These comments were uttered by Mr Burnham at a question-and-answer session held at Netley Primary School in Camden. I assume that he was invited there to address Labour Party members by Sir Keir Starmer, who has taken the Holborn and St Pancras seat vacated by Frank Dobson and has endorsed Mr Burnham’s candidacy. The candid and tentative nature of what he had to say indicated, on the face of it, a certain degree of naivety on Mr Burnham’s part: firstly, in not having a developed position on HS2 ready for his audience, many for whom HS2 is a high-priority issue, and secondly for considering that, being amongst friends, he could bare his soul on the subject without his comments reaching a wider audience – apparently he asked them not to tweet his views. However, Mr Burnham is an experienced politician and, far from an innocent revelation, what may have occurred was a pre-planned “soft” launch of his proposed break from current Labour Party policy on HS2, in order to see the reaction.

Needless to say, a full report of what he said was printed in the local paper, the Camden New Journal – surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to have made the nationals.

In his “thinking aloud” account to his audience, he confessed that he “had his doubts” and is “thinking very carefully” about the HS2 project. He explained:

“I worry that this is one of those issues where there is a Westminster-centric approach, where everybody says: ‘This is the bees’ knees’ and ‘We’ve got to have this’, and it leaves people behind.”

He also cited “vested interests getting their claws into Westminster and driving these issues on” and leaving the public thinking: “what’s that all about?”

He posed the key question that others have asked before him:

“If you are to spend £50billion on the rail infrastructure of this country, would [HS2] be the first thing you’d do?”

It is evident that Mr Burnham is inclined to think that it probably isn’t. He told his London audience that the public in the north of England wanted better investment in east-west links and that “nobody’s clamouring for [HS2]”.

Whilst it is probably somewhat of an exaggeration to claim that nobody in the North wants HS2, the latest opinion poll results from YouGov, commissioned by the Sunday Times, show support for HS2 in the North is indeed lower than in London, the “rest of the South” and the Midlands and Wales (see footnote 2).

Mr Burnham is reported in the newspaper article as promising to “comment further on where he stood on HS2 later in his leadership campaign” and “pledging to visit affected areas in Camden for a detailed look”. As far as I can determine, the other three leadership candidates have not yet made their respective positions on HS2 clear.

If we are to believe what the HS2 fanatics tell us, a Member of Parliament representing a constituency in Greater Manchester should be hanging out the bunting for HS2, salivating with Pavlovian anticipation of the benefits that it will bring. It must be a trifle irksome for the “We love HS2” brigade that at least one Manchester MP is, it seems, not welcoming the prospect of HS2 with unbounded enthusiasm, and that he could be Labour’s next Leader – although the Camden New Journal brands him the “bookmaker’s favourite”, which is probably the kiss of death on his chances.

The chances are, I feel, that Baron Adonis of Camden Town in the London Borough of Camden may be planning to call in on Mr Burnham in the near future to inflict a spot of Maoist-style re-education on his renegade colleague.

Footnotes:

  1. See the doubts that I expressed about whether the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill would be effectively scrutinised in my blog Blind faith (posted 20 May 2013). Also I commented on the strange position of Shadow Transport Minister, Lilian Greenwood, supporting HS2, despite expressing doubts about the choice of route corridor in my blog A lesson in environmentalism, part 3 (posted 3 Oct 2013).
  2. The public support and opposition regarding HS2, as at July 2015, is summarised on page 6 of the poll results. Support in the North is quoted as 29 per cent, with 53 per cent opposing and 18 per cent undecided. The support levels for the other three areas that I cite in my blog are: London 35 per cent, Rest of the South 34 per cent, and Midlands/Wales 33 per cent.

Passing thoughts

One of the issues that has occupied the thoughts of some of those who would be forced to live with HS2 is what happens when two trains, travelling in opposite directions, pass. Those concerned about this matter point, in particular, to fears that the resultant noise will be dramatically increased.

Whilst acoustic science has a bland, and superficially reassuring, explanation of the results of such an occurrence, I am able to reveal to you an alternate, and much more imaginative, interpretation of the outcome following my viewing of a movie DVD recently.

The film in question is I Wish, or Kiseki (奇跡) for the Japanese speakers amongst us, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a star amongst the current crop of Japanese movie auteurs. The main plot of the film is the belief held by a group of schoolchildren that when two 160-mph bullet trains – yes only 260km/hr, a whole 100km/hr less than planned for HS2 – pass each other the force of the conjunction is so great that some kind of supernatural field is generated that has the power to make the wishes of those who witness the event come true. The kids, each with their own desperate wishes, play truant and travel to be present when the event occurs, and to shout out their various requests, which are largely drowned out by the noise of the trains.

One of the children has the body of his recently deceased pet dog in his knapsack, and it is all too evident that his wish for life to be restored to the beloved mutt has not been granted. His decision to take the body home for burial in his garden appears to signal the acceptance by the group of cold realism over fantasy, and the children’s realisation that high-speed trains do not have the magical power to make wishes come true – this, unfortunately, appears to be a lesson that our political masters have yet to learn (at our expense).

On the evidence of the scenery in the film, there’s little magic either in the cold realism of Japanese high-speed train architecture. You may be able to get a sense of the desperate brutalism of the forms, and their domination of the landscape, in the still from the film reproduced below. However, to get a full appreciation of the awfulness, I think that you need to see the movie, which is something that I heartily recommend anyway, as it is a gem of a film.

We can only hope that HS2 Ltd does better when it comes to structures for the UK railway, but I don’t have much expectation that what we see emerging in our own countryside will be any less of an eyesore.

I_Wish

One of the stalwarts of the HS2 Select Committee has been Ian Mearns MP, whose ebullient and humanitarian contribution to proceedings, and his obvious incisiveness, have been much valued. It seems that his qualities are also appreciated by his fellow MPs as he has recently been elected by them as Chairman of the House of Commons Backbench Business Committee. Whilst congratulations are most definitely in order, I presume that the additional responsibilities that have resulted from his elevation from participant in to head of this important select committee are the reason behind his recent “discharge” from the HS2 Select Committee. I fear that the fortunes of HS2 petitioners will be the poorer for his departure.

I cannot, however, say the same for the other departing Member, Yasmin Qureshi. She has not really played an active part in the deliberations of the Committee, and has not even been present at all sessions held since the general election.

Three new MPs have now joined the Committee; they are Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cons, The Cotswolds), David Crausby (Lab, Bolton North East) and Mark Hendrick (Lab Co‑op, Preston). So after 450 petitions having been heard over 92 days, the Committee moves forward with half of its Members starting from scratch. It could only happen at Westminster!

 

 

Paxo stuffing, part 8

(… continued from Paxo stuffing, part 7, posted on 9 Jul 2015).

My discussion of the letter sent by Sir David Higgins to the Financial Times has reached the final two sentences.

Sir David says:

“Passengers who queue on a daily basis at Paddington and London Bridge, or those who have to stand on the West Coast Mainline are paying the price of dithering and delay by previous generations. Imagine what it will be like in twenty years’ time if we fail once again to seize the chance for change.”

I say:

I’m really not sure what Sir David thinks HS2 will do for the unfortunate commuters forced to use Paddington or London Bridge; perhaps his suggestion is that they should move house to Solihull in 2027 and use HS2 to commute instead. Sir David singles out two London termini where congestion is experienced by passengers, though commuter train overcrowding is a factor across pretty much all of the capital’s terminal stations.

The industry-standard method for assessing overcrowding is “passengers in excess of capacity” or PIXC (see footnote). Department for Transport (DfT) statistics for trains departing London in the one-hour afternoon peak on a typical autumn weekday in 2013 allow the following league table of London terminus stations to be constructed on the basis of the percentage of services with PIXC, reducing as one descends the table:

  1. Paddington
  2. Blackfriars
  3. Marylebone
  4. Waterloo
  5. Fenchurch Street
  6. St Pancras International
  7. Liverpool Street
  8. Euston
  9. Victoria
  10. King’s Cross
  11. London Bridge
  12. Moorgate

Euston, which is the only London terminus to which HS2 can conceivably offer any relief, is well down the league at eighth, with 9 per cent of services with PIXC compared with 45 per cent at Paddington. If the three-hour peak is used as the basis of the table, Euston rises to sixth equal place, but is still well below the overcrowding at Paddington (12 per cent against 47 per cent).

DfT statistics also reveal that Euston rates only sixth in the league table of the number of passengers that used it to depart London in the three-hour afternoon peak on a typical autumn weekday in 2013. It accounted for only 5.8 per cent of the passengers leaving London (26,718 out of a total of 461,889) and the busiest station, London Bridge, handled four times as many departing passengers (109,852).

London commuter traffic clearly presents a knotty problem for transport planners to contemplate. Sir David is right to point out that the situation in twenty years’ time will be a whole lot worse if past dithering continues and “we fail once again to seize the chance for change”. If he means this as an endorsement of HS2, however, I am far from reassured that this, once work has been completed, will have little more than a marginal impact on improving the lot for London commuters as a whole. It appears to me that the problem merits interventions that are targeted directly at increasing capacity on the worse-affected routes; even viewed in the most optimistic of light, HS2 is a very indirect, wrongly-targeted, ineffective and expensive way of easing the lot of a small proportion of London commuters.

During the construction work at Euston station HS2, requiring as it does extensive excavation within the throat of the station, could make matters very much worse for commuters trying to use Euston to get into and out of London.

There is also the question of the opportunity cost of HS2 and whether the £50 billion (or probably more) to be spent will effectively be money that is not available for other projects such as improving London commuter services; after all, you could make a lot of improvements to these services, and spread the benefits more widely around the London termini, if you had even a slice of £50 billion to spend.

Little has been announced about how it is proposed to fund HS2, but the newly, and very reluctantly, released June 2012 report of the Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority cautions about the impact that HS2 would have on the DfT’s budget were it to be funded only by internal resources (paragraph 7.10):

“Without a comprehensive budget in circulation it is difficult to have fully meaningful discussions on affordability. The [DfT] believes however that the costs of this project are so large, and over such a long period, that it will not be able to afford it alongside all its other likely spending commitments.”

So the problems of those “who queue on a daily basis at Paddington and London Bridge” may have been acknowledged by Sir David, but the activities of his company could make things worse for them, not better.

Footnote: A train service is deemed to be “with PIXC” when the number of passengers travelling is in excess of the capacity of that service. Capacity is deemed to be the number of standard class seats on the train for journeys of more than 20 minutes; for journeys of 20 minutes or less, an allowance for standing room is also made. The measure of PIXC is derived from the number of passengers travelling in excess of capacity on a service divided by the total number of people travelling, expressed as a percentage. The PIXC is often calculated for excess passengers and capacity totalled over all trains running during a peak period.

Paxo stuffing, part 7

(… continued from Paxo stuffing, part 6, posted on 5 Jul 2015).

My discussion of the letter sent by Sir David Higgins to the Financial Times has reached the sixth sentence.

Sir David says:

“That is why HSBC is moving its UK headquarters to Birmingham by 2018 and why, elected, local authority leaders across the Midlands and the North, as well as an overwhelming majority of MPs support the scheme.”

I say:

Attributing the decision to move the headquarters of the UK retail banking division of HSBC to Birmingham as having been taken because of the improved transport link to London that HS2 will provide is a total distortion of the facts of the case as I have been able to determine them. I have read a number of newspaper articles reporting on the decision and none of them refer to HS2 having been a factor.

The plain facts behind the decision, as I have gleaned them from these articles, are:

  • HSBC’s decision to move some of its activities was stimulated by the legal requirement to ring-fence its retail, banking business by 2019.
  • The bank has historic links with Birmingham, as its retail arm is descended from the Birmingham and Midland Bank, founded in 1836.
  • The bank already has 2,500 employees based in Birmingham.
  • Birmingham is a location that is more centrally positioned than London, making it a more convenient point from which to control a nationally-distributed retail operation.
  • HSBC already has headquarters located outside of London, for First Direct (Leeds) and M&S Bank (Chester).
  • Greater Birmingham is the UK’s leading centre for financial services outside London, with more than 21,000 companies employing some 220,000 people in the region.

There is also the minor detail that the move is set to be completed by January 2018, at least eight years before HS2 is scheduled to be serving Birmingham.

With his claim about the support for HS2 from local authority leaders across the Midlands and the North we have at last reached an assertion for which Sir David can claim reasonable substantiation. Two metropolitan council leaders in particular, representing Birmingham and Manchester, have given almost fervent backing to the project. I don’t find this at all surprising however; after all, what council leader worth his salt would turn down investment in transport infrastructure serving his city? The prospect of significantly reduced travel times to London, and a few other cities, is also undeniably an appealing one.

Regular readers of my blogs will expect, however, that I am not given to making admissions of this kind without expressing the odd caveat, or two. In this case my work has been done for me by Frank Dobson in what I believe was his last speech in a Commons debate on HS2 before he retired his Holborn and St Pancras seat (see footnote 1):

“… if that £50 billion [cost for HS2] were split between those cities, giving them £10 billion each, and the people of, say, Manchester and Sheffield were asked in a referendum what they would do with their £10 billion, the chances are that they would not say that the first thing they needed to do was to club together for a high-speed railway. That would be pretty unlikely.”

I suspect that even the council leaders most strongly in favour of HS2 would find the cash a tempting option, although of course the offer of cash instead of HS2 is not one that would ever be made.

I also have to concede that Sir David is right about the position of MPs, at least as far as the voting figures on Second Reading of the Phase 1 hybrid Bill bear testament. The Ayes definitely had it on that occasion, 452 MPs supporting Second Reading and 41 voting against. However, the Noes vote achieved was significant in view of the three-line whip imposed by both government parties and the main opposition one.

It is a sad fact of the way that our democracy is organised that for an MP not actively involved in a debate – and for most debates only a small proportion do get involved – voting with the whip requires no real contribution from the cerebral cortex. The legs are the chief bodily parts that come into play; they carry the Member from whatever part of the Westminster estate he or she is in to the voting lobby that has been indicated by his or her whip. After voting, the Member will generally return to previous business without much thought for what he or she has just done; it is not even really necessary for the Member to know anything about the matter on which he or she has just cast their vote, or even what the question was.

Sir David also needs to reflect that things can change dramatically in politics. We have a new House of Commons with many new Members, a new leader of the Labour Party will be elected in the autumn, and the opportunity cost of HS2 has been brought in sharp focus at the start of this parliamentary session by the publishing of the MPA reports on HS2 and the announcement of the “pausing” of modernisation projects planned for Network Rail. The House of Commons Library, usually a shrewd judge of the parliamentary temperature, has issued words of warning for those who might regard HS2 as a “done deal” (see footnote 2):

“Despite the cross-party support, further cost increases might yet tempt the Government into writing-off spending to date and cancelling HS2.”

What Sir David neglects to mention in his letter is that those forming the most important body of opinion, the citizens who will ultimately have to pick up the tab, are far from convinced that they want HS2. A poll carried out just before the general election, commissioned from ComRes by the AGAHST federation of action groups, reveals that support for HS2 is 25 per cent and those against amount to 35 per cent. The proportion of those opposing rises to 42 per cent, however, when respondents are reminded of the £50 billion price tag for HS2.

More significantly, the ComRes poll shows that support for HS2 would fall markedly if the cost increases; support falls to 7 per cent, and opposition to 61 per cent, at £100 billion. Also only 1 per cent of those polled by ComRes placed HS2 as their top priority for government spending and 7 per cent put it in their top four priorities. 43 per cent ranked HS2 as the lowest spending priority of ten options tested.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. See column 496 of the House of Commons Official Report for Friday 23rdJanuary 2015.
  2. See page 167 of the Library’s publication Key issues for the 2015 Parliament.
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