A bad deal at any price

I had just settled down to write my next blog this morning when an incoming email alerted me to coverage of HS2 on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that was still being broadcast at the time. When I investigated I found that the coverage had been triggered by a report by what the BBC referred to as “a group of transport experts”. Since this report was the outcome of a workshop that I had trailed in my blog Speaking truth to power (posted 2 Feb 2016), and which I had been eagerly awaiting, I decided to drop the topic that I had planned for this posting and concentrate upon the report and the BBC coverage instead.

The report tells us that the workshop, which was convened on 23rd May 2016, attracted “some 40 professionals with widely differing views [on HS2]”. It warns us that the report “is intended to reflect the majority view” of those that attended, but that “inevitably its conclusions are not equally endorsed by all participants”. This majority view may be summarised, fairly I trust, as:

  • Of the four objectives upon which the report claims HS2 is “predicated”, the report finds that only one, increasing rail capacity, is achieved by HS2 and has reservations about the effectiveness of even that one achievement.
  • The cost of the full HS2 project equates to £105m per route-km, which compares with £20m per route-km for the TGV line from Tours to Bordeaux.
  • A “lower design speed, as adopted in France and Germany, would make it possible to choose a less damaging route, and at the same time reduce construction, operation and mitigation costs”.
  • The report contests that “a much fuller range of policy options [alternative to HS2] should have been considered” and identifies some candidate proposals.
  • The report identifies shortcomings with the methodology employed to develop the business case for HS2.
  • The report recommends that “a review [of the HS2 project] was needed”, and that this review should be “conducted objectively and dispassionately before we commit to the nation’s largest-ever transport investment”.

On the Today programme (see footnote 1) the BBC’s Environmental Analyst, Roger Harrabin, expressed a very good reason why the report should be taken seriously by the Government:

“It’s a group of academics – many of them quite eminent, many of them retired – who say that, because they’re retired, they can now take a truly independent view on HS2: they think that, broadly speaking, a lot of academia, consultants and big business have been sucked into the great circle around HS2, and will benefit from profits, and they say that they think that has led to insufficient scrutiny.”

Sadly though, as I reported in Speaking truth to power, previous attempts by this group to gain the ear of the Government have been studiously ignored.

Unsurprisingly, it was the claim that HS2 is proving to be five times more expensive than the TGV in France that headlined the BBC report. Mr Harrabin said that initially he “really couldn’t believe” the figures in the report when he had seen them the previous day and “didn’t plug” the story for that reason. He said that he had put the cost comparison “to the Government before lunch [that same day], eleven o’clock” and that it had taken “until seven o’clock in the evening to get a response, and that response was no response; so they didn’t respond to the allegation that it will cost five times as much”.

Mr Harrabin did, however, indicate that the Government had put forward some reasons why the costs for the TGV line and HS2 were not directly comparable, and the Acting Technical Director of HS2 Ltd, Giles Thomas, explained what these were when he was interviewed on the programme by the BBC’s presenter, Sarah Montague (see footnote 2). He said that the TGV route was “a line extension” and that:

“… a line extension doesn’t have any stations, they’re running off into existing stations, whereas High Speed Two is, of course, a network that comprises ten new stations. It’s also, as you said earlier, going through some very expensive parts of the UK, in a much more dense (sic) environment, and, of course, the costs that we are quoting include rolling stock as well, which the TGV line doesn’t.”

These are all perfectly valid points, and the spokesman for the report, Professor Tony May (see footnote 3), in his interview with Ms Montague readily accepted that they were “not comparing like with like”, however the differences identified by HS2 Ltd surely don’t justify a five-fold increase in cost.

One possible other reason for the cost difference – significantly not one identified by Mr Thomas, but something that Ms Montague put to him – is that HS2 Ltd is “set on running [HS2] ultra-fast at 240mph, rather than 190mph, and that, on cost grounds (and actually it goes on, on environmental grounds), but just take the cost one, it’s not worth it”.

Mr Thomas explained that HS2 Ltd was “designing for the future” and ventured that “nobody would thank” the Company if it “ended up building a railway which came into service in 2026, which actually couldn’t then be adapted to future technology” (see footnote 4), to which Ms Montague countered:

“But, as one of your objectives states – an entirely understandable one – one of the aims is to reduce climate change and, because of that speed, it will not do that.”

Mr Thomas’s reply indicates that he had been on that training course that teaches people in his position how to totally ignore any question that has negative connotations:

“Well, the more direct the route, the less impact, in many ways, we have on the actual environment and the countryside. So we have really set about trying to balance the needs of the environment and the needs of people, and the benefits that HS2 offers as we provide some fantastic journey times: up to Manchester in 1hr 8mins and Leeds in 1hr 23mins.”

I think that he may be the only person on this earth who things that building a trackway that goes straight across the countryside, without the ability to divert around sensitive sites, can result in lowering the environmental impact. Anyway, in the proud tradition of BBC interviewers, Ms Montague refused to be diverted from her course:

“… and you accept that the price for having those extra few minutes off a journey time … is to be paid both financially and in a less green result.”

It appeared that Mr Thomas thought that it was a price worth paying:

“… the difference between an alignment of 300kph or 360kph, the difference is so small that one would want to invest that extra money and, indeed, we were asked back in 2011 to look at the differences in speed as part of our consultation and we decided we wouldn’t change the route alignment at all as a result of that.”

This last point is one of which I am acutely aware because, as I reported in my blog Bend it, just a little bit (posted 25 Feb 2012), saving South Cubbington Wood is one of the objectives of that study, which demonstrated that the woodland could have been saved from damage if the design speed had been reduced on the section past my village.

Footnotes:

  1. The recording is available, for a limited time, on the BBC iPlayer. Roger Harrabin’s contribution starts at 13mins55secs in, Tony May’s at 53mins20secs in and Giles Thomas’s at 1hr 32mins 35secs in.
  2. I wonder what the significance of this job title is regarding the position of the long-term Technical Director, Professor Andrew McNaughton. As far as I can determine, no announcement has been made that the professor is leaving HS2 Ltd.
  3. Anthony May OBE FREng FICE is Emeritus Professor of Transport Engineering at the University of Leeds.
  4. This assumes, of course, that the Victorian technology of steel wheels on steel rails represents the future for railway transport, which it probably doesn’t.

Looking above the bottom line

When the Command Paper setting out the Government’s plans to accelerate the delivery of the section of HS2 Phase 2 from Fradley, north of Birmingham, to Crewe – coined “Phase 2a” – was published towards the end of last year the opportunity was taken to recalculate the overall project costs on the basis of 2015 prices, rather than those in force in 2011, the year that has been used up to then. According to the Command Paper, the total budget for Phase 1, Phase 2a and the remainder of Phase 2 has increased to £55.7 billion, on this basis. However, the Command paper also claims that “the [real] cost of HS2 has not changed since the 2013 spending review”, attributing the new higher budget figure to “the prices [having] been uprated to take account of inflation” (see footnote 1).

The 2011 present value budget figure for Phase 1 plus the whole of Phase 2 had previously been advised as £50.1 billion (see footnote 2), so the raw figure has increased by a little over eleven per cent. The Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator tool yields ten per cent as the rise in the retail prices index (RPI) between 2011 and 2015, and the Government claims that “construction inflation since 2011 has been higher than background inflation and may continue” (see footnote 3), so the assertion that an eleven per cent hike in the budget is due solely to inflation appears plausible.

Indeed, had it not been for the intervention of Stop HS2’s Joe Rukin, I may well have been willing to swallow this particular example of HS2 spin. Joe had the presence of mind to employ freedom of information legislation to obtain a breakdown, by phase, of the total figure (see footnote 4) and posted this information in a blog on the Stop HS2 website. This breakdown reveals a more complex picture than the simple inflation hike portrayed by the Government.

At this point, a small detour is called for, I feel. HS2 budgets are based upon a “point estimate” of the build cost. I have been unable to find a satisfactory explanation of what this estimate represents, but it does appear clear that nobody thinks that HS2 can actually be built for the point estimate present value cost. Potentially more realistic budgetary figures have been derived by adding a contingency to the point estimate; the levels of this contingency have been set so that the “with contingency” figure represents a P95 confidence level (see footnote 5).

The information that Joe Rukin has obtained in response to his FOI request provides the point estimate figures, referred to as the “without contingency” costs, and the P95, or “with contingency”, costs, as present values in 2015, separately for Phase 1, Phase 2 (including the accelerated Phase 2a) and rolling stock. Whilst Joe has presented a first-class analysis of these broken-down costs in his blog, I cannot forgo adding my own twopenn’orth, even at the risk of belabouring the point.

The point estimate for Phase 1 has increased from £15.65bn to £18.0bn, representing a percentage increase of fifteen. However, a direct comparison of these two figures is not really valid, since the scope of Phase 1 has changed. As I complained in my blog Just tell us the basis of your calculation (posted 9 Apr 2014), the man tasked with reducing the cost of HS2, Sir David Higgins, could, apparently, only think of removing the HS2-HS1 link from the project scope, but failed to advise us of the resulting reduced Phase 1 point estimate. Since then the recommendations of the Commons HS2 Select Committee have increased the scope of Phase 1, most notably by additional tunnelling under the Chilterns. The result of these scope changes is that it is impossible to form a view about whether the point estimate increase that has been advised is actually a zero amount in real terms, unless the Government also advise the overall cost increase due to scope additions and the overall cost decrease resulting from scope reductions.

The contingency that has been applied for Phase 1 has been increased from £5.75bn (representing 36.7% of the point estimate) to £6.3bn (35% of the point estimate). So, whilst this is an increase in money terms, it actually represents a reduction of about £200m in real terms, which is, I suppose, small beer in the HS2 budget, but the onus is surely on the Government to explain why the contingency percentage has changed.

The point estimate for Phase 2 has been increased from £12.5bn to £17.4bn, an inflation busting thirty-nine per cent. Some of this increase must be conceded to the additional cost of accelerating Phase 2a, but Government figures put this increment at an insignificant £25m (see footnote 6). This whacking increase in the base cost of Phase 2 gives some credence to the rumours that have been rife that coal mining and salt extraction activities along the route of Phase 2 have created huge engineering problems in achieving the almost billiard table flat trackbed that ultra high speed operation requires, necessitating expensive solutions. The increase clearly demands an explanation from the Government, rather than hiding it within a blanket project cost increase that mirrors inflation.

The contingency applied to the Phase 2 total included in the 2011 present value figures was £8.7bn, representing a 69.6% hike in the point estimate. This margin is considerably higher than the contingency employed for Phase 1, reflecting the greater uncertainty in Phase 2 costing due to the relative low-level engineering work that had been undertaken for Phase 2 at the time. The 2015 Phase 2 total reduces the contingency to forty per cent, still higher, but not much, than the contingency used for Phase 1. This may represent a perfectly reasonable reflection of the improved level of knowledge that has been obtained about the engineering requirements of Phase 2. However, it also has the convenient impact of keeping the increase in the P95 cost for Phase 2 from the 2011 present value estimate at around fifteen per cent, in the right ball park for the Government to claim that the increase is in line with inflation. Notwithstanding, the Government has a duty, surely, to explain these changes in approach.

The point estimate for the costs of purchasing rolling stock has come down from £5.6bn to £5.4bn, representing about a fifteen per cent decrease in real terms. Whilst it is perfectly defensible to claim such a reduction in the light of gaining a better understanding of the likely costs, informed no doubt by ongoing negotiations with potential train suppliers, it is, I feel, a move that merits public justification. Similarly to be explained is the reduction of the contingency that has been applied from 34% to 30%.

Both the Transport Secretary and the Transport Minister in the Lords chose only to echo the presentation of project cost in Cm 9157 when reporting to their respective Houses of Parliament, and so both only revealed the bottom-line figure of £55.7bn, allowing them to make the claim that the budget increase was in line with inflation (see footnote 7). I trust that you will agree, based upon the detail that I have set out in this blog, that both Ministers thereby failed to provide those responsible for deciding the future of the HS2 project with sufficient detail for them to be appropriately informed. In particular, the news that there has been a big hike in the point estimate cost for Phase 2 could be crucial information for those called upon to decide if HS2 should be extended north of Crewe and reflect on what this means to the viability of the project as a whole.

The Government swan is trying to maintain the semblance of calm and is assuring us that all is well with HS2 costs. However, below the waterline, it appears that the swan’s legs are paddling like the clappers: press reports (see footnote 8) that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is undertaking a review of HS2 costs have been confirmed by Government sources, but the significance has been brushed aside as “standard practice”. Nevertheless, I am sure that the implication of a nigh on forty per cent increase in the base cost for Phase 2 will not escape Sir Jeremy’s attention, however much the spin doctors at the Department for Transport want to keep it from us.

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 7.5 of Cm 9157, High Speed Two: East and West The next steps to Crewe and beyond, Department for Transport (DfT), November 2015.
  2. See paragraph 7.2.5 of the October 2013 DfT document, The Strategic Case for HS2. The budgets are advised separately for Phase 1 (£21.4bn), Phase 2 (£21.2bn) and rolling stock (£7.5bn), totalling £50.1bn.
  3. See paragraph 5.3 of the November 2015 DfT document HS2 Phase 2a Strategic Outline Business Case. I have not been able to source a figure for the rise in the Construction Prices Index. Responsibility for this index was under the remit of the, now defunct, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but was inherited by the Office for National Statistics in March 2015 and I have failed to locate a consistent set of data for the index over the period 2011 to 2015.
  4. FOI15-1444.
  5. The P95 budget figure is the present value cost that gives a 95 per cent degree of confidence that the project can be delivered at, or below, budget.
  6. See paragraph 5.2 of HS2 Phase 2a Strategic Outline Business Case. However, it is also worth noting, as Joe points out in his blog, that paragraph 2.21 of the DfT December 2015 document HS2 Phase 2a Strategic Outline Business Case Financial Case advises that the cost of a new hub station at Crewe has not been included in the Phase 2 budget.
  7. For the report to the House of Commons by the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, Secretary of State for Transport, to the House of Commons see Column 25 of the House of Commons Official Report for Monday 30thNovember 2015. For the equivalent report to the House of Lords, by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, see Column 362 of the House of Lords Official Report for Thursday 14th April 2016.
  8. See, for example, this article in The Guardian.

 

An act of betrayal

A letter appeared in the press last month that is critical of HS2 (see footnote 1). Nothing new in that, I hear you say, but this particular letter was signed by four eminent environmentalists (see footnote 2) and so attracted my attention. Whilst all of the authors of the epistle have previous form, in that they have all gone to print before to attack the project, the letter was unusual in that, for once, the project itself did not appear to be the main target that the antagonists had in their sights. True, the letter does refer to the “hugely expensive HS2 project” being “fundamentally flawed”, but the real venom is reserved for what the letter calls “so-called environmental groups”. The letter accuses four named organisations (see footnote 3) of having “assisted this extremely damaging environmental project at every stage” and adds:

“These groups have betrayed their members as the project will, without question, add to greenhouse gas emissions, seriously damage the countryside, destroy woodland and generate levels of noise greater than those set in World Health Organisation community noise standards.”

I have, in past blogs (see footnote 4), had occasion to criticise one of the organisations identified by the four environmentalists, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), on similar grounds, so I have considerable sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the letter. At the same time, I was keen not to smear the branch of that organisation that covers my own fair county with the same tar-laden brush: Warwickshire CPRE has a long-standing difference of opinion on HS2 with its National Headquarters organisation, and was keen to call attention to this split, before the ink on the letter was really dry, by posting the following message on its Facebook page:

“Whilst I believe the authors of the letter to the Telegraph this morning are correct in their assessment of HS2’s worth and in their condemnation of the certain NGOs, I would like to point out that CPRE Warwickshire has consistently opposed HS2: initially for the destruction that will be caused to the English countryside (something which WE strive to protect!), but latterly for reasons of lack of need and excessive cost.”

In my blog I’m trying to understand you (posted 16 Jun 2012), I attempted to make sense of a position where, despite what Warwickshire CPRE identifies as “the destruction that will be caused to the English countryside” by HS2, its umbrella organisation has signally failed to oppose the project and has even offered qualified support to the extent that a past Transport Secretary was able to “welcome” comments made by CPRE (see footnote 5). My conclusion in that June 2012 posting was basically that the redeeming feature that had saved HS2 from being rejected out of hand by the four NGOs was that it was not a road; new road building being anathema to such bodies.

The pro-HS2 lobby has been keen to exploit motorway phobia within the environmental NGOs. One proposition that I have heard more than once (see footnote 6) goes along the lines: HS2 will be capable of carrying the same number of passengers out of London as two six-lane motorways can accommodate, therefore we will need to construct two new motorways northwards out of London if HS2 is not built. Nobody would dispute that building two new motorways would cause far more environmental damage than will result from HS2, so we had better build HS2!

If this assertion was capable of passing even the most cursory of examinations, then I would admit defeat and pack up my stall, but of course it isn’t. It relies on the fundamental fallacies that the number of seats on offer is the same as quantity of passengers, and that passengers will switch en masse from train to car if there is a shortage of train seats.

A more scrupulous review of this matter, indeed one undertaken by the Department for Transport (DfT), produces the far less staggering prediction that, by 2037, around 25,000 car trips per day, equivalent to 0.9% of inter-zone car trips, will have shifted from road to HS2. The DfT concludes (see footnote 7):

“This 0.9% is equivalent to one year’s traffic growth and highlights that the impact of HS2 does not affect the key facts and conclusion of this document [regarding road transport forecasts].”

In addition, the DfT study assumes a modal shift of 7 per cent from road to HS2, whereas the latest forecast from HS2 Ltd that I have seen reduces this figure to just 4 per cent, so the impact on road travel overall will, if anything, be less than the DfT prediction (see footnote 8).

I believe that another reason that HS2 has been given a fairly easy ride by some environmental NGOs is early promises made that it would reduce carbon emissions by offering a more efficient alternative to road and air travel. If anyone in those NGOs still believes that, then they haven’t been keeping up with developments. These claims were seriously undermined by an early report published by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee cautioning that they “do not stand up to scrutiny” and that “HS2 should not be promoted as a carbon-reduction scheme” (see footnote 9).

Any lingering support for HS2 as a carbon reduction proposition has surely been scotched recently by HS2 Ltd admitting that, whilst there “is a large carbon saving associated with the operation” of HS2 Phase 1, over the first sixty years of operation this will fail to recoup the “significant” greenhouse gas emissions that will result from its construction, leaving a net debit that is about the same as the operational savings (see footnote 10).

The CPRE’s mission statement is:

“The CPRE exists to promote the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country.”

Unfortunately, it appears that is hasn’t occurred to the policy makers at CPRE HQ that HS2 may actually not represent a sustainable use of land – my blogs Scoring an own goal (posted 22 Sep 2011) and You weren’t supposed to read that (posted 26 Sep 2011) certainly set out a strong case that HS2 is an unsustainable project.

The environmentalists’ letter claims that the support for HS2 offered by the four named environmental NGOs “marks a serious decline in [their] legitimacy”. For my part, what I think that it demonstrates is that there has been a failure by the organisations to appreciate that the undoubtable environmental damage that the project will cause is an undeniably lose-lose, with no redeeming features to justify it.

Footnotes:

  1. See Environmental groups’ failure over HS2 on the Opinion webpage of the Daily Telegraph for 17thApril 2016.
  2. The four are:
    John Whitelegg – Visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and Professor of Sustainable Development at University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute
    John Adams – Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London
    Mayer Hillman – Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster
    Stephen Plowden – Independent consultant and author on environmental matters
  3. The four organisations are:
    The Campaign for Better Transport
    Friends of the Earth
    The Campaign to Protect Rural England
    Greenpeace
  4. See, for example, Pass me my rose-tinted specs, part 1 (posted 8 Jun 2012) and part 2 (posted 12 Jun 2012), I’m trying to understand you (posted 16 Jun 2012), Putting it to the test, part 1 (posted 20 Jun 2012), part 2 (posted 24 Jun 2012) and part 3 (posted 28 Jun 2012) and So what do you think now? (posted 2 Jul 2012).
  5. The past Transport Secretary is the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP when speaking at the Transport Times Conference on 26thJanuary 2012, as reported in my blog Pass me my rose-tinted specs, part 2 (posted 12 Jun 2012).
  6. Examples being HS2 Ltd Technical Director, Professor Andrew McNaughton, in an article published in the Daily Telegraph on 27thJanuary 2015 and Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, in a House of Lords debate on 19th November 2013 (see column 952 of the House of Lords Official Report). I complain about a similar claim that HS2 Ltd Chairman, Sir David Higgins, made to the Sunday Times in my blog Paxo stuffing, part 6 (posted 5 Jul 2015).
  7. See Box 1 on page 6 of the DfT report Road Transport Forecasts 2013.
  8. See Table 12 on page 83 of the HS2 Ltd October 2013 publication The Economic Case for HS2.
  9. See paragraph 12 of Conclusions and Recommendations, on page 54 of Volume 1 of House of Commons Transport Committee Tenth Report of Session 2010–12 High Speed Rail.
  10. See paragraphs 6.1 to 6.4 of High Speed Two Information Paper E10: Carbon. You may also find the infographic on the HS2 Action Alliance website of interest.

Acknowledgement: I was made aware of the useful reference to HS2 in the DfT report Road Transport Forecasts 2013 by the Beleben blog A cost-ineffective means of addressing road traffic growth.

 

 

What a turn-up (and turn-out)!

A short while ago a postcard dropped through my letterbox, addressed to “The Occupier”, inviting me to “an event about HS2” to be held in Kenilworth. A similar day had been held in Southam last October (see footnote 1), but I had not attended that one as I had been advised that the event was intended only for residents in the Southam and Ladbroke areas, and that staff would not be briefed to answer questions from residents from further afield – this restriction came as something of a surprise, as the Southam event was the first to be held in Warwickshire for some time and my village of Cubbington is only six miles from Southam, as the crow flies.

information_event_invitationKenilworth is slightly closer to Cubbington, about four miles in a straight line, and I had received an invitation, so I assumed that the Kenilworth event would cater for Cubbington residents, an assumption that HS2 Ltd confirmed, eventually. I had heard that some visitors to the Southam event had expressed dissatisfaction with the answers, or lack of answers, that they had been given to their questions, a complaint that had also been made about previous HS2 information days, so it was more in hope than in expectation that I made plans to visit Kenilworth: after all, it is wrong to complain about a lack of engagement if you haven’t taken every opportunity to engage that is on offer.

I arrived at the venue about a half-hour after it had opened, and it was already busy. I was greeted warmly, just inside the door, by a representative of HS2 Ltd. I said that I wished to speak to an environmentalist and was advised to look for someone with a green stripe on their name badge – clever eh! I was told that, if I couldn’t find anybody to come back then the greeter would find someone for me. So this was a good start. It would be shallow and politically incorrect of me to admit that the experience was made all the more pleasant by the greeter being an attractive and charming young lady, so I won’t.

The main room of the venue was, as has been the case at previous events, full of display boards onto which information was pinned; mainly maps showing construction and as-built information. The room was fairly full of people, many engaged in conversation with quite a number of HS2 Ltd representatives. Eventually, after a couple of circuits, I located a man with a green line on his name badge and hovered by him, waiting for him to finish his chatting with another visitor.

I must say that the subsequent conversation was well worth the short wait. The HS2 Ltd man appeared to know the route through Cubbington, and its environmental impacts, well. I learnt that my fears that the damage to South Cubbington Wood might exceed the 2.27ha that has been declared are groundless, since the contractor will simply not have legal power to operate outside of the bill limits – I said that I’d still like to see a substantial perimeter fence though.

I also secured, for the first time, a clear explanation of the function of the twenty-metre strips either side of the retained cutting through the wood, designated as “for woodland management only”. It appears that it will not be necessary to fell all trees within these strips: it will only be required to remove diseased, or otherwise “unsafe”, vegetation.

I reminded him that Warwickshire County Council had told the Commons Select Committee that the plans to address the loss of woodland connectivity that HS2 will cause are inadequate, and enquired how discussions with the Council on this matter were going (see footnote 2). His reply indicated that there had been a failure so far to agree a mutually-acceptable solution to this issue, but that negotiations were still ongoing.

We talked about the logistics of provisioning a few million native saplings for compensatory and screening planting, and he advised me that a strategy was being worked on and, most importantly, assured me that all plantings will be propagated in the UK – we don’t want to import any nasty foreign diseases, do we. Since it is important that new planting is given time to establish before existing trees are ripped out, I asked about the timescales for the various planting that will be required around South Cubbington Wood. I also sought clarification of how long will be allowed to achieve successful propagation of the veteran pear tree before it had to be felled, as viable grafts are not easy to achieve, or guaranteed, with such old stock material. As regards timescales, he was unable to offer me any specifics and could only talk about general principles, so I was not entirely satisfied by his answers, but it was probably unreasonable to expect specific information at this stage of the project.

I asked him if he was prepared to talk about noise. He said that he could, up to a point. It appeared that we soon exceeded that point, because he passed me on to a specialist acoustician. I must say that the conversation with this second gentleman was a real delight. In contrast with previous attempts that I have had to engage with HS2 Ltd acoustics experts (see footnote 3), I found this to be a collaborative, rather than confrontational, exploration of the issues and my man certainly knew his stuff. The relaxed atmosphere engendered a fairly free-ranging discussion, but my chief concern was the admission in evidence before the Commons Select Committee that it was the LAMax night threshold for LOAEL that usually set the geographic limits for adverse effects from operational noise, rather than LAeq, despite which the noise contour maps published by HS2 Ltd have no LAMax information on them (see footnote 4).

I was told that HS2 Ltd recognised this shortcoming and moves were afoot to try and do something about it before petitioners came before the Lords Select Committee. I was told not to expect 60dB LAMax contours to appear on any revised maps though – reading between the lines, I got the impression that it was difficult for HS2 Ltd to map this data with its current tools (see footnote 5).

Whilst I was chatting away, my wife Gillian was able to secure a set of new A3 size copies of our local construction and as-built maps on posh shiny paper. These appear to include all of the changes made by additional provisions.

I was so elated with actually being able to talk freely with a couple of representatives of the sworn enemy that, on the way out I responded to the request from a researcher – another attractive and charming young lady, but let that pass – to take part in an exit survey and gave the event a glowing report and much more generous scores than good sense would have dictated was prudent; shame on me, but I am easily wooed by a kind word or two.

When I finally left, after about an hour, there was a queue of people outside the venue waiting their turn to be allowed entry, but only being let in, one by one, as someone left. Goodness knows what it was like in the evening when people were coming in after work, and I would be surprised if HS2 Ltd had printed enough copies of the maps to go around.

My experience has left me wondering whether I was just lucky and found two HS2 Ltd representatives who were good guys and wanted to help all they could, or whether I was witnessing a sea change in the way that residents are dealt with. Certainly, my suspicion in the past has been that the HS2 people at these events have been under strict instructions not to give anything away in the way of vital information. If these were and still remain the house rules, then my two guys were blatantly ignoring them. More likely, however, if that the recent spate of reports critical of HS2 Ltd public engagement has led to the, all too obvious, change in approach as a matter of policy (see footnote 6). If I am right, then it is a change that we should warmly welcome.

Footnotes:

  1. The Southam event took place on Tuesday 13thOctober 2015.
  2. See paragraphs 29 to 57 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 28thOctober 2014.
  3. See, for example, my comments about a fairly futile search for information by me in 2013 in my blog Being a real seeker after truth (posted 17 Jun 2013).
  4. For an example of this evidence see paragraphs 12 to 20 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 4thNovember 2015.
  5. However, in order to be consistent with the units utilised for the current maps it would be necessary to convert the LAMax threshold from a façade to a free-field value, requiring it to be expressed as 57dB (approximately).
  6. The first such report is Report on an investigation into complaints about High Speed Two Limited by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. This initiated a follow-up inquiry by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which then prompted HS2 Ltd to commission an independent review by a former Independent Police Complaints Commissioner.

PS: According to an article in the local Kenilworth Weekly News, almost 500 people attended the event. In the days following the event I have discussed the experience with a number of the residents of Cubbington who also attended. I think that it is fair to report that views are mixed, with some complaining that their questions weren’t answered and that staff did not appear to be particularly knowledgeable about the project, so perhaps my experience was not typical.

Gladiatorial games, part 28

(… continued from Gladiatorial games, part 27, posted on 8 May 2016).

Gladiatorial games has turned out to be the longest multipart blog that I have authored so far, easily surpassing my previously most extended effort, Lessons from history, which only (!) runs to sixteen episodes. My original mission, as I expressed it in part 1 of the series, was “to make some sense” of the evidence on noise presented to the HS2 Select Committee by Chiltern District Council, to which I later added complementary evidence given by the HS2 Action Alliance. It is clear in part 1 that I didn’t intend, at the outset, that the explication would expand quite the way that it has – the evidence itself was very meaty and led to my own researches which have added to the bulk – so I apologise for that. What I hope that I have achieved, notwithstanding, is a comprehensive resource that petitioners to the House of Lords wishing to raise issues about noise will be able to dip into for information and understanding that will enable them to sharpen up their act; some of the presentations to the Commons Select Committee that I heard were woefully misinformed.

It occurs to me that it might be helpful to anyone wishing to access the information in this series relating to a particular topic to have a list of topics and the part numbers where they can be found, and that is what I have provided below:

Introduction and negotiations with Local Authorities’ Noise Consortium (LANC) – part 1

Assurances agreed on taking developments from research and foreseeable circumstances into account in detailed design – part 2

Matters not yet agreed – part 3

Review of methodology for the assessment of daytime operational airborne noise effects in the Environmental Statement – part 4 and part 5

Total noise should be utilised when determining if LOAEL and SOAEL will be exceeded – part 6, part 7 and part 8

Increased impact in currently tranquil areas – part 9 and part 10

Appropriate levels for LOAEL and SOAEL thresholds

The context for the discussion that I have presented in this blog series is summarised in the opening paragraph (paragraph 2.1) of the Explanatory Note to the Defra document Noise Policy Statement for England (NPSE), which says:

“Noise is an inevitable consequence of a mature and vibrant society. For some the noise of city life provides a desirable sense of excitement and exhilaration, but for others noise is an unwanted intrusion that adversely impacts on their quality of life, affecting their health and well being.”

For most people who will find themselves living within earshot of HS2 it is the potentially adverse “impacts on their quality of life” of the noise that is their concern, and even residents of Camden, who may indeed find living in our nation’s capital city exciting and exhilarating, are anxious about the possible impacts of the noise that will be generated by a major construction project taking place on their doorsteps.

Government has a duty to protect the environment and the health and wellbeing of its citizens, and with HS2 the two go hand in hand. It is also, however, an aspiration of both the Government and, I would venture, the people that it serves to build, as stated in NPSE paragraph 1.8, “a strong, stable and sustainable economy which provides prosperity and opportunities for all”.

These two functions of government give rise to a dichotomy, or as the NPSE has it (paragraph 2.18):

“There is a need to integrate consideration of the economic and social benefit of the activity or policy under examination with proper consideration of the adverse environmental effects, including the impact of noise on health and quality of life.”

The NPSE appears, in paragraph 2.7, to give a clear steer on which side of the bread the Government thinks it should apply the butter when deciding, in the words of paragraph 2.4 therein, “what is an acceptable noise burden to place on society”:

“In the past, the wider benefits of a particular policy, development or other activity may not have been given adequate weight when assessing the noise implications.”

It appears to be a fact of the way that the UK is governed today that what the NPSE identifies as the “guiding principles of Government policy on sustainable development” (paragraph 1.8) are always the trump card when it comes to clashes with principles of good husbandry of the environment, including the management of noise – a rule that appears to apply whether the development in question is demonstrably “sustainable” or not.

Many, like me, think that the pendulum has swung far too far in that direction, and I guess that the two expert witnesses whose evidence I have examined in this series, and many petitioners who appeared before the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee, would be amongst those ranks.

Acknowledgement: I wish to express my special thanks to Michael Woodhouse, who has stuck with me for the long haul to this final part, for his suggestions and comments, which I have found invaluable throughout.

Gladiatorial games, part 27

(… continued from Gladiatorial games, part 26, posted on 3 May 2016).

In the final paragraph of part 26 I promised a report on the cross-examination of Doug Sharps, expert witness on acoustics for the HS2 Action Alliance, in respect of his views on the choice of values made for HS2 Ltd for the significant observed adverse effect level (SOAEL) thresholds to apply to HS2 operational and construction noise. It was Mr Sharps view that there should be a fixed margin of 10dB between SOAEL and the corresponding lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) threshold, rather than the set of values specified by HS2 Ltd that  had margins varying between 10dB and 25dB (see footnote 1).

Both parties agreed that, in Mr Mould’s words, LOAEL and SOAEL are “evidence-based terms”, but that, in contrast to LOAEL, SOAEL is “not a concept which one finds in the World Health Organisation evidence base” – Mr Thornely-Taylor clarified that the term SOAEL was “invented by Defra”(see footnote 2). Mr Sharps also agreed with Mr Mould that there is a “relative paucity of evidence on which to place an observation-led level for SOAEL as compared to a relative quantity of evidence promulgated through the WHO in relation to NOAEL and SOAEL” and Mr Mould made the further irrefutable claim that the NPSE stops short of recommending any suitable levels for SOAEL (see footnote 3).

Despite this generally-agreed state of affairs, the Promoter did try to claim two authorities in support of his chosen SOAEL values. In the first place, Mr Mould cited the 65dB LpAeq,16hr level at which “a householder would be entitled to insulation under the prevailing noise regulations” in support of the same level being specified by HS2 Ltd as SOAEL daytime, on the basis that being entitled to an insulation grant was “a pretty good indicator that you’re likely to experience a level of impact that is at or above a significant observed adverse effect” (see footnote 4).

Whilst Mr Mould’s reasoning has a degree of soundness, the legislation governing the provision of noise insulation grants predates the adoption of the concept of SOAEL in the UK, and I can find no justification for the selection of the daytime level specified therein that would indicate that it might also be an appropriate basis for specifying the SOAEL threshold. Further the insulation grant threshold of 60dB for night is 5dB higher than the night SOAEL chosen by HS2 Ltd, so the Promoter cannot claim it to be “a pretty good indicator” in that case. For his part, Mr Sharps’ expressed the opinion that “if you align your SOAELs with legislation for noise insulation then you’re (sic) SOAELs are much too high” (see footnote 5). I think, that the jury is still out on that one.

Mr Thornely-Taylor’s only significant contribution on this subject was to point out to the Select Committee that the SOAEL for night noise “comes from the night-noise guidelines”, whilst “not using that explicit term” (see footnote 6). The only threshold of 55dB that is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its Night Noise Guidelines for Europe is the Interim Target (IT) for Lnight,outside which is intended for countries where the full NNG (night noise guideline) limit of 40dB Lnight,outside cannot be achieved in the short term (see footnote 7). Mr Thornely-Taylor would surely be aware that, not only is this not using the “explicit term” SOAEL, but it is a very different animal to SOAEL and has, as far as I can see, no particular relevance to the choice of the night SOAEL threshold, being more akin to an interim LOAEL threshold value.

Mr Sharps’ reaction was that “you have to make a judgement on what SOAEL level you chose” and that, in his opinion, “a doubling of loudness from lowest affect to significant effect [i.e. 10dB] is a “perfectly appropriate way of establishing SOAELs”. However, he signally failed to provide any logical or evidential support for this assertion, other than a vague reference to “what the National Physical Laboratory say”, without any specific reference being cited (see footnote 8).

My verdict on the proceedings is that Mr Sharp succeeded in making the case that the spread of margins between LOAEL and SOAEL exhibited by the policy set out in E20 and E23 is unsatisfactory, but failed to make the case that the unified margin should be 10dB.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. The evidence presented by Mr Sharps was heard during the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Monday 12thOctober 2015 (video and transcript).
  2. The term was coined for the Defra document Noise Policy Statement for England, or more correctly the Explanatory Note to this Policy, see paragraph 2.21 of that note.
  3. Mr Mould’s remarks may be found in paragraphs 113, 117, 119 and 127 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015. Mr Thornely-Taylor’s clarification may be found in paragraph 258 of that transcript. The acronym NOAEL, more usually rendered NOEL, represents the no observed effect level, which is the threshold below which there is no detectable effect on health and quality of life due to the noise.
  4. Mr Mould’s quotes are taken from paragraph 170 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015. The threshold for noise insulation entitlement is stated as the “specified day-time level” in clause 2(1) of the statutory instrument The Noise Insulation (Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations 1996. The level specified therein is 68dB, but as confirmed in, for example, Clause 4(3) of those regulations, this is a façade level that is generally taken to be equivalent to a free-field value of 65dB.
  5. See paragraph 173 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015.
  6. See paragraph 258 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015.
  7. See Table 1 in Section 5.5 of the WHO publication Night Noise Guidelines for Europe.
  8. See paragraphs 128 and 180 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Michael Woodhouse for his suggestions and comments, which I have found invaluable in preparing this series of blogs.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog has been 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.

 

Gladiatorial games, part 26

(… continued from Gladiatorial games, part 25, posted on 30 Apr 2016).

I mentioned in part 24 of this blog series that Doug Sharps, expert witness on acoustics for the HS2 Action Alliance, had raised some issues with the HS2 Select Committee that his professional colleague Rick Methold, put up by Chiltern District Council, had not covered, and that there were two in particular that I wished to review. Having examined the first of these in the preceding two parts of this series, I will now take a look at the second (see footnote 1).

This second issue is the threshold levels that HS2 Ltd has specified for the significant observed adverse effect level (SOAEL) and, more specifically, the relationship of those threshold values to the lowest observed adverse effect level (LOAEL) values.

By way of a reminder, the value specified for SOAEL is important to affected residents because one of the “noise policy aims” of the Noise Policy Statement for England (NPSE) is to “avoid significant adverse impacts on health and quality of life”. By definition, this means avoiding exposing residents to noise levels that exceed SOAEL. However, before we get too excited about this prospect, the gilt is decidedly removed from the gingerbread by the accompanying caveat “while also taking into account the guiding principles of sustainable development”, which basically means you don’t have to avoid it if it is too difficult, or it costs too much. Notwithstanding, SOAEL is important because the NPSE regards noise that is below the SOAEL, but above the LOAEL, thresholds as “adverse” and the NPSE aim then is only to “mitigate and minimise” rather than “avoid”. Whilst this is, at least on the face of it, a clear distinction if the SOAEL threshold is exceeded, the clarity of the difference is somewhat blurred by the sustainable development get out of jail free card being in play (see footnote 2).

Mr Sharps explained his gripe to the HS2 Select Committee in the following way (see footnote 3):

“In my opinion, the significant adverse effect levels should be 10dB above the low observed adverse effect levels, not the 15dB for LAeq or the 20-25dB for LAmax that HS2 propose. The 10dB is a doubling of loudness, a much higher level; and HS2 adopt this 10dB difference between low levels of impact and significant levels of impact in the construction noise criteria which are in E23.”

The numbers behind Mr Sharps’ remarks may be easily verified by referring to the two HS2 Ltd information papers E20 and E23. The former informs us that, if we employ LAeq to operational noise, SOAEL daytime is set at 65dB LpAeq,16hr and the equivalent LOAEL is 50dB; at night SOAEL is 55dB LpAeq,8hr and LOAEL is 40dB – so that is 15dB difference in both cases, as Mr Sharps claims. At night we have the choice of employing LAmax and, in this case, SOAEL is either 85dB LpAFMax or 80dB LpAFMax, depending upon whether the number of nightly train pass-bys is above or below twenty; the equivalent LOAEL is 60dB LpAFMax, irrespective of the pass-by rate – so the difference is 20-25dB, agreeing with Mr Sharp (see footnote 4).

Delving into E23 reveals that the SOAEL thresholds set for construction noise vary from 65dB LpAeq,T to 75dB LpAeq,T, depending upon the time period during the day and evening, with the corresponding LOAEL a uniform 10dB below in the range 55dB LpAeq,T to 65dB LpAeq,T – all as claimed by Mr Sharps (see footnote 5).

What Mr Sharps was seeking was for this 10dB margin to apply to all construction and operation thresholds, rather than having different margins between LOAEL and SOAEL, an arrangement that he described as “illogical” (see footnote 6). Mr Sharps’ plea for “a logical matrix of assessment criteria” did not appear to find favour with the Promoter’s expert witness on acoustics, Rupert Thornely-Taylor, despite his concern, expressed on another occasion and in connection with a different issue, that the setting of LOAEL and SOAEL threshold values should not result in an “odd looking framework” that “doesn’t make sense” (see footnote 7). As it turned out, with the exception of a single comment about the source of the 55dB LpAeq,8hr SOAEL that I will refer to in part 27, Mr Thornely-Taylor left making the counter-arguments on the SOAEL/LOAEL relationships to the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, during his cross-examination of Mr Sharps.

In my view legal cross-examination can all too often serve to obscure, rather than expose, the truth. It is an adversarial process that requires Counsel to be an interrogator, rather than a facilitator, and often causes the witness to be overly defensive and unwilling to volunteer information. Unfortunately, this typical behaviour appeared to govern the discussion about the SOAEL/LOAEL relationships that the Select Committee witnessed, and I don’t think that much illumination was achieved. However, I will use my next posting to report upon what was said.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. The evidence presented by Mr Sharps was heard during the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Monday 12thOctober 2015 (video and transcript).
  2. See paragraphs 1.7, 2.23 and 2.24 of the NPSE.
  3. See paragraph 50 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015.
  4. Refer to Table 1 in Appendix B to HS2 Ltd publication High Speed Two Information Paper E20: Control of airborne noise from altered roads the operational railway.
  5. Refer to Table 1 in Appendix A to HS2 Ltd publication High Speed Two Information Paper E23: Control of construction noise and vibration.
  6. See paragraph 78 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thOctober 2015.
  7. Refer to the fifth paragraph of my report in part 18 of this blog series. Mr Thornely-Taylor’s quotes are taken from paragraph 22 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 4th November 2015.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Michael Woodhouse for his suggestions and comments, which I have found invaluable in preparing this series of blogs.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken include uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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