Please don’t rush me

I had expected that just about now I would be posting a blog commenting on a statement made in the House of Commons by the new Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, about the future of the HS2 proposal. However the lady is being coy about revealing her intentions. A written ministerial statement by the Secretary of State for Transport was printed in the Hansard record for 6th December 2011, as follows:

“The Department for Transport’s business plan says that, following the consultation on high-speed rail which was held earlier this year, we would complete the analysis of consultation responses and announce our subsequent decisions to Parliament in December.

“Since taking up office in October I have been considering the issues, raised as part of the consultation and additionally have listened to the views of hon. Members. In order to ensure that my decision is based on a careful consideration of all relevant factors, I have concluded that I should allow myself until early in 2012 to announce my decisions. I am therefore notifying the House that I will not be making a further statement on the subject of high-speed rail this year, but I expect to announce my decisions in January.”

This might be viewed as a welcome and sensible step, after all the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC) came up with a long list of matters which the Government should review before making a final decision. This list includes the economic case (including a financial appraisal of the environmental impacts in line with latest Government policy), the maximum speed, making more use of existing transport corridors, linking to Heathrow, the location of stations in London, the case for building from the North as well as the South and the track capacity in terms of trains per hour.

The ministerial statement gives no hint of how Justine Greening proposes to use the extra time that she has made for herself and whether any items on the TSC’s list have made it on to her “to do” list. However, if she is only planning to delay her announcement until January it looks unlikely that there will be sufficient time to complete the extra work that the TSC has suggested is necessary.

The Transport Secretary’s statement did not come as a surprise because it had been predicted in an article in The Daily Telegraph on the previous Saturday (here). This article had the lead:

“Ministers have found an extra £500 million to pay for a new tunnel under the Chilterns to pacify MPs who have been protesting against the high speed rail link between London and Birmingham, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.”

The article also said that the £500 million “has been found from a thorough review of the entire route and reconfiguring some of the deep cuttings and green tunnels further up the line”.

Now it is, of course, difficult to know how much credence can be placed on this newspaper report. However, it was right in predicting the ministerial statement and so that does give some credibility to its source or sources. Let’s just assume that it is reasonably accurate for the moment; what significance might it have?

The new tunnel, if built, will run through the constituency of Cheryl Gillan, Welsh Secretary, member of the Cabinet and critic of HS2, and it is surely her, above all, that the Transport Secretary would wish to “pacify”. So would extra tunnelling have any effect on the strength of Cheryl Gillan’s opposition? According to The Daily Telegraph a spokesman for Ms Gillan has commented that “more tunnelling is what she has been pushing for”, so perhaps she might be “pacified”.

However, this ploy doesn’t appear to have impressed her constituents. In a blog on the Stop HS2 website (here), Nigel Shepherd, Chairman of the Amersham Action Group, describes the tunnel proposal as “a clever piece of ‘spin’” and “smoke and mirrors” and the message coming from campaigners in the Chilterns is that the fight to stop HS2 goes on. I think that we can safely assume that Ms Gillan will be left in no doubt that her constituents can’t be “pacified” and don’t expect her to be either.

It is important, I think, that Justine Greening appreciates that there are serious environmental issues along virtually the whole length of the route proposed for HS2, not just around Amersham. These problems must be properly addressed; it will not be seen to be sufficient to apply, in the words of HilaryWharf of the HS2 Action Alliance, “sticking plaster”.

If we believe The Daily Telegraph, far from addressing the environmental problems along the route, money has been saved by “reconfiguring some of the deep cuttings and green tunnels further up the line”. To me this implies that these savings may worsen the environmental impact in some areas; presumably these will be areas that the Government does not find as politically embarrassing as Amersham. My analysis appears to be shared by Martin Tett, Leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, who said in an interview for BBC News (here):

“We really need to know where this £500m actually comes from and who’s going to suffer potentially as a result of it.”

It would be a truly cynical political act if the Transport Secretary were to dole out mitigation “favours” on the basis of the seniority of the sitting MP for that part of the route. It is indicative of the dirty business that politics surely is that we are all too ready to believe that this could happen.

However, before we all get too excited perhaps we should consider the words of David Lidington MP, Europe Minister, addressing his constituents via his website (here):

“I am aware that several media outlets have commented that the reason for the delay is so an assessment can be made on the feasibility of further tunnelling in the Amersham area. The Secretary of State’s statement makes no reference to this and subsequent enquiries have led me to understand that no decisions have been made about further tunnelling and that a variety of options are being looked at. Therefore, until the announcement the issues raised in the recent articles are nothing more than pure media speculation.”

So what is the Opposition’s take on the ministerial statement? Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle is quoted in a Press Association article (carried in the Bridgwater Mercury) as saying:

“By accepting that the current proposals on the table are not right, the Government has opened up a real opportunity to get this vital project right. It’s a welcome start but ministers should now go further, stop being dogmatic and use this pause to finally take up our offer to work together on a long-term strategy for both high speed rail and aviation.”

Now Ms Eagle also has her own political agenda, but assuming that we can take her words at face value this appears to be a sensible way forward. However, I fear that until the Opposition declares that it is not prepared to back the current plans for HS2 if they are put before Parliament substantially unmodified, there will be no chance whatsoever that the Government will take up Labour’s offer.

As this is my last blog that will be posted before Christmas Day I would like to take this opportunity to wish my readers a very merry Christmas. As for the coming New Year, then my hope is that you will find it prosperous and that it will prove to be the year of the demise of HS2.

PS: At an oral evidence session of the Commons Transport Select Committee held on 14th December, the Transport Secretary was given the opportunity, by a question from Steve Baker MP (Wycombe), to “confirm that the Government is considering the construction of a tunnel through parts of Buckinghamshire”. Ms Greening refused to provide this confirmation, giving as the reason being “in the decision period where I have to look at all the responses to the consultation and then weigh them up and then reach a decision and announce it”. She did however also say:

“I think that what I do want to say is from the word go I’ve been very clear that I understand how important this project is and therefore, if it’s to go ahead, then I want to make sure that we get it right and I think that getting it right means getting it right from an environmental perspective as well as the impact that it has potentially for rail and rail users.”

Let’s hope that Ms Greening’s “environmental perspective” has a wider field of view than just the constituency of her right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Wales.

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