Fudging the issues

At this point I am going to break into my long-running series of blogs on the 51m alliance response to the public consultation and post a couple of blogs on a topical subject. I think that we could all do with a change.

Here is a question for you. What do the following towns and cities have in common: Blackpool, Bolton, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Rochdale?

Pause for thinking.

You are right if you said that they are all north of Watford, but that’s not the answer that I was seeking.

You are closer if you said that they are all places where unemployment and economic growth are particular issues, but there is a further connection.

If you are a total genius you may have taken a clue from my obsession with HS2 and realised that these are all places served by Members of Parliament who are current also members of the Commons Transport Select Committee. Seven members of the eleven strong committee, including the Chair Louise Ellman, have this connection.

So if you were one of these MPs and have been asked to investigate a proposal that its proponents claim will benefit the economy of the North and bring much-needed jobs, you would be an absolute fool to give it the thumbs down, even if you are not totally convinced by the case put before you. Rather than give way to your concerns that there are serious flaws in the proposals, you would be much less likely to receive a backlash from your constituents if you sign up to a report that pledges broad support for the scheme, but then you can add in all of your concerns for good measure.

This is precisely what the honourable members who make up the committee appear to have done in their consideration of the HS2 proposal. The report that they have given their names to (High Speed Rail here) has been described by fellow MP and Government Whip, Michael Fabricant, as “weak and vague”. It recognises, and appears to agree with, many of the shortcomings of the HS2 proposal that campaigners have identified, even touching on some of the environmental issues that I have raised in my blogs, but its recommendations are so half-hearted that the Committee’s message that the Government has got it wrong seems to have been relegated to a metaphorical footnote.

I fear that the Transport Secretary will gleefully seize on the report as an endorsement of HS2 and will studiously ignore all of the caveats. However, if you read the report there is a definite message that it is “back to the drawing board” time. The Summary of the report says that the Committee has “pointed out a number of areas that … need to be addressed in the course of progressing HS2”. The Committee members also “call upon the Government to consider and to clarify these matters before it reaches its decision on HS2”.

So does this mean that Justine Greening will declare a delay in the announcement that is expected in December while the TSC’s concerns are addressed? It would be nice to think so, but we all know that most politicians would sooner have root canal treatment without local anaesthetic than change policy. Still, as I said, it would be nice to think so.

It is instructive to read the minutes of the TSC meeting that was held to consider the contents of the draft report on 1st November 2011 (these minutes may be found at the end of the first volume of the report). There were a number of attempts made by members to soften the support given to HS2 in the report. Rebel-in-chief appears to have been Steve Baker MP, who also voted against the adoption of the report. Now Steve Baker is not a northern MP, but represents the constituency of Wycombe; as such he is sympathetic to the plight of the Chilterns, but the HS2 route does not cross into his constituency as so he can avoid the “nimby” tag. His verdict:

“I remain concerned that there are significant issues which need to be addressed before a decision on HS2 can be made. These include the strategic policy context, the assessment of alternatives, the financial and economic case, the environmental impacts, connections to Heathrow and the justification for the particular route proposed. I am pleased the summary makes that point.”

He also promises that “the debate will continue”; you bet it will and with renewed vigour now that the Select Committee have accepted a number of the issues that are at the heart of the campaign against.

In the next blog I shall try and make sense of what the report says about the environmental impacts of HS2.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ggrrllaa on November 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    It would be a mistake for Justine Greening to view the TSC report as a ringing endorsement of the HS2 proposals. It certainly isn’t. The headline news is that they are broadly in favour of it, but there are many areas where HS2 / DfT are asked to provide more or better information, or consider changes.

    I would expect a positive announcement on HS2 (by which I mean a “Yes, we’ll build it”). However I would also expect further route alterations and mitigations, as recommended by the TSC.

    Of course, membership of the TSC is barred to any MP with direct interests in the subject under examination, so it would be impossible for any MP on the actual line of route to be represented on the committee.


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