The final public act of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill Select Committee before the dissolution of the 2010-15 Parliament was to issue its First Special Report of Session 2014-15. The purpose of this document, as stated therein (paragraph 20), is in order that the successor committee’s Members “might benefit from [the original committee’s] reflections on progress and evidence to date” and to enable the retiring committee to “signal some sensible ways forward for programming and petitioning procedure”. Although it is not a stated purpose, the report also provides some petitioners who have already been heard with feedback on the Committee’s reaction, and some tips for those yet to appear in Committee Room 5.
For me a key statement of the Committee’s attitude to mitigation proposals is expressed in paragraph 75 of the report, which considers the costs of tunnels, a key element of many such proposals. We are told that the “merits of tunnels should be assessed on the basis of their own cost and potential benefit, not their percentage contribution to overall project costs” and it seems reasonable to assume that this principle extends to cover any design change requested to reduce impacts. If this policy is to be the touchstone for the assessment of community proposals, then I fear that any improvements being sought by petitioners that involve additional expense seem doomed to be turned down, as it is likely to be very difficult for petitioners to demonstrate that a financial benefit will arise from changes designed to reduce environmental and social impacts, and even more difficult to value that benefit in monetary terms.
Whilst I can understand the Committee’s determination not to be seen to be profligate with taxpayers’ money, I think that, by not taking a more holistic view of the project and its impacts, the Committee is missing out on an, indeed the only, opportunity to mould HS2 into a form that is somewhat more sympathetic to the land and communities through which it would pass than has been achieved to date. What is required, on the parts of both the Committee and the Promoter, is a recognition and admission that the original environmentally aware design philosophy of keeping the track low in the landscape was abandoned when it became clear that this was not possible to achieve this aim within the constraints of a budget set, somewhat arbitrarily, early on in the project’s life (see footnote).
Some honesty on this point could, perhaps, lead to a decision by the Committee to tolerate a loosening of the purse strings in order to allow at least some of the worst effects of HS2 to be alleviated. A small increase in the budget ceiling could provide an appreciable pool of money for the Committee to use to say yes to the worthiest proposals set before them, without needing to look at the benefit-cost ratio for each proposal separately. Even a modest 5% increase in the budget for Phase 1, would make close to £1bn available, which would be sufficient to allow the go-ahead to be given to a number of the proposals that the Committee has been asked to consider.
Had the Committee adopted my suggested approach towards mitigation proposals then the “recommendations” for particular locations set out in paragraphs 37 to 79 of the report might have been less depressing. There are no particular surprises in this section of the report, as most of it will have already become known to anyone who has followed the “statements by the Chair” that have been published at intervals. However, what stands out, particularly now that these pronouncements have been drawn together in a handful of pages of text, is that even when the Committee accepts that the impacts of HS2 will be significant upon a community or locality it is very reluctant to press for substantial design changes, unless these are acceptable to the Promoter. Petitioners who are still waiting to be heard by the Committee will surely get the message that they are unlikely to secure anything other than minor or non-controversial mitigation measures. They are also unlikely to find much reassurance in the comment made in the report that the Committee “were content with the Promoter’s existing assurances or with the position as planned under the hybrid bill” in the case of “some 40-45% of the petitions” that it has heard so far (paragraph 31). Neither will they be cheered by the news that only in “of the order of 10%” of cases did the Committee decide that “a specific, early decision would be desirable” (paragraph 30).
Whilst the report (in paragraph 8) confirms that the Members of the Committee have “the power to amend the Bill”, it also explains their apparent reluctance to use that power (paragraph 32):
“HS2 Limited seeks negotiated settlements with petitioners and other parties as and when proper and possible. It is right that they do so, as agreements are more likely to achieve practical and appropriately detailed solutions than decisions imposed by a panel such as ourselves.”
It is of course preferable for improvements to the design sought by local communities and those that represent them to be achieved with the full cooperation and agreement of the Promoter, but in order to ensure that HS2 Ltd remain sufficiently responsive to proposals the Committee really must believe, and demonstrate, that it is prepared to use its power to amend to override any objections raised by the Promoter where this is necessary. Time will tell if the Committee has the resolve to do this; I don’t think that this has been demonstrated to date.
(To be continued …)
Footnote: The Committee were assured by Tim Mould QC last summer that: “The railway has been designed to be low in the landscape, taking advantage of natural topography and landform to shield the line both visually and aurally from those who live and work along the route” – see paragraph 66 in the transcript for the session of the HS2 Select Committee held on the afternoon of Tuesday 1st July 2014. For my own views on this claim please refer to my blog A change of heart (posted 18 Apr 2013).