What’s in a word?

Postscript to sustainable development

I went along to Leamington Town Hall the other week to listen to a public interest debate on HS2 held by Warwick District Council; well there wasn’t much on TV that evening! There was a speaker in favour of HS2 who had come all the way from Birmingham City Council. He didn’t have much impact on our Council, they are still firmly opposed. Poor man! At times he looked like a Christian waiting for the lions to come into the arena. One thing that he said was that HS2 was “sustainable”. It’s the sort of word or phrase that supporters of HS2 trot out ad nauseam; “transformational impact” is another one and the man from Birmingham used that several times. I suppose that the supporters of HS2 believe in what they are saying, but you never seem to hear much in the way of solid argument or facts to back the rhetoric up.

So is HS2 sustainable? Well it has to be judged by its potential impacts in the three areas: economic, social and environmental.

HS2 is bound to have some positive economic effects; it’s providing work for a goodly number of consultants and employees of HS2 Ltd already. It will also generate many jobs, albeit temporary jobs, during its construction. But will it have a “transformational impact” on the economy and, particularly, the economy of the North? My response is: “Why would it?” After all HS2 is doing nothing new, merely duplicating existing rail links but travelling a bit faster.

We could probably get just as much benefit from upgrading the existing rail links; this would certainly be a great deal cheaper.

Perhaps I am missing something. I am not an economist (thank God) and I am probably being too simple minded. However if you want a more intellectual analysis of the potential regional economic benefits of HS2, you could do no better than to refer here.

One thing is for sure. If HS2 proves to be the “white elephant” that its opponents allege, then it will have a very bad effect on the economy. The possibility of a huge debt, getting larger year by year because of operating subsidies and interest payments, is a scenario that definitely cannot be ruled out.

My verdict on the economic front is, therefore: “Advantages not proven”.

On the social front, HS2 will definitely have an impact on people. Some of this will be good, such as reducing the time spent on trains, but a lot will be bad. Try telling the villagers in Burton Green in Warwickshire that HS2, which cuts right through the village centre and threaten homes and the village hall, will improve their lives. The same thing applies to unfortunate residents around Euston Station. And then there is the noise; oh, the noise! And what about property values, and severing footpaths, and loss of local amenities and …?

I suppose that people can move on from this sort of trauma. Perhaps Burton Green will recover in time and, in the long run we will all be dead, so probably not too much harm done. However, I doubt that many of those currently under threat would agree with this glib assessment. So, on balance, it’s probably a thumbs down on the social impacts.

Finally, we come to the environment. Hands up all those who think that building a new railway that links up all the pretty bits and then trashes them will be good for the environment. That’s no one then. Yes, I thought so. Much of the damage that will be done will be irreversible. If you grub up an ancient wood, as is proposed in my neighbourhood, then you have lost it forever and planting any number of new trees, yes even two million as has been promised, will not bring it back.

Then there is the greenhouse gases question, particularly carbon dioxide. I plan to cover this topic in detail in future blogs and will set out why I think that HS2 is incompatible with the requirements of the Climate Change Act 2008. My take on this is that we should not be undertaking new projects that do not demonstrably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What we should be doing is ensuring that more of our railways run on electricity rather than diesel and seeking to minimise the power required by electric trains. Just a hint on this to HS2 Ltd and the Government – going faster requires more electricity, not less.

So the environmental impact appears to be all bad.

So, is HS2 a sustainable project? On a scale of one to ten, where ten is the most sustainable, I would rank it as about two. In my book, that places it just about one point ahead of Concorde.

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