Ask a silly question

Well Question 6 of the public consultation on HS2 was a daft one, wasn’t it? “Do you wish to comment on the Appraisal of Sustainability of the Government’s proposed route between London and the West Midlands that has been published to inform this consultation?” What was the purpose of this question? Was the Government seeking respondent’s opinions on the Appraisal of Sustainability (AoS) and, if so, why wasn’t the question more directly phrased in these terms?

Not surprisingly, the company charged with analysing the consultation responses, Dialogue by Design, appears to have had some difficulty in interpreting the consultation responses to this question. In its report High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future Consultation Summary Report (here) it comments (in paragraph 6.1.2 on page 116):

“The question in the Consultation Document about the AoS is different to the other questions in that it asks whether respondents wish to comment, rather than whether or not they agree with a particular question proposition.”

In a footnote on the same page Dialogue by Design indicates that the question may have caused some confusion in the minds of those responding:

“Many responses are limited to ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘no comment’. It appears that respondents often commented on this question assuming that they were asked to indicate whether they agreed with the AoS, rather than whether they wanted to comment on it. This could explain the widespread occurrence of comments stating ‘yes’ but no further detail or ‘no’ followed by further comments.”

Faced with this mess created by a careless, or possibly devious, drafter somewhere in the Department for Transport, Dialogue by Design has done its best to extract meaning from the responses. In paragraphs 6.2.1 and 6.2.2 of its report, on page 116, it advises us that a “total of 36,918 consultation responses include comments addressing issues relating to Question 6”, but that 1,312 of these “consist of comments made in responses in which no specific reference to the consultation questions is made”. However, the “majority of responses to Question 6 do not include specific reference to the AoS; comments about the AoS are made by 15,320 respondents”.

In Table 6.1 on the same page, Dialogue by Design informs us that of those 15,320 respondents who commented on the contents of the AoS only 614 “are satisfied with it” without qualification. A further 158 respondents “endorse it with some sort of caveat”. The great majority, 14,170, “comment that it is in some way insufficient”.

In the next handful of blogs I will look at some of the comments made by these fourteen thousand odd detractors in support of their judgement that the AoS is “insufficient”. I will also examine the response by HS2 Ltd to the criticisms, which have been set out in the document Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability (here).

However, do not expect any contrition from HS2 Ltd. In paragraph 6 of the Executive Summary of its response document, HS2 Ltd sets out its general response to criticism of its AoS:

“Consultation responses did not identify an alternative approach that we would consider to be appropriate for the project. Having analysed consultation responses we are confident that the approach we took to examining the impacts on the environment and sustainability through the AoS is an appropriate one for the stage of development of the proposals. We consider our appraisal represents a sound basis on which the Secretary of State can make a decision.”

After nearly two years of dealings with HS2 Ltd I would have expected such complacency; “we are always right in everything” appears to be the company motto.

However in the specific area of comments on local impacts, HS2 Ltd indicates, in paragraph 5 of the Executive Summary, a more flexible approach:

“In a number of cases these have identified areas that would require further investigation and the development of mitigation as part of the EIA mentioned above. In a number of locations, in response to issues raised during consultation, we have recommended changes to the line of route to mitigate environmental impacts.”

What HS2 Ltd should have added is that in many locations the environmental impact has been increased as the result of an exercise to reduce the costs of construction; see my blog The ups and downs of route engineering (posted 9 Feb 2012). It seems to me that it is an extremely dubious practice to make changes to the design of the route that was consulted upon after the public consultation has closed, unless such changes are in response to issues raised by the consultation and are clearly designed to “mitigate environmental impacts”.

You might argue that the reduction in track bed height that we have seen will have environmental benefits because it will reduce the quantity of spoil that will be generated and the proportion of this spoil that will require off-site disposal. This may be true, but the largely short-term benefits that this will bring will be far outweighed by the increased visual and noise impacts that shallower cuttings and higher embankments will cause over the long term.

It is difficult to see what has happened as anything other than a cost saving exercise and I question both the morality and the legality of what the Government has done.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dr Chris Eaglen on May 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

    The EIA (scope and methodology) notes some observations from the answers/comments to Question 6. If the basis of DFT HS2 is playing games with stakeholders and deminimising rigour for complex project the use of this casual question is statutory negligence. When the spin about tunnels becomes care and concern about villages when it was mainly about topology and water acquifer risks as quoted in the EIA SAM then the nation has lost its bearings, certainly the proposed scheme team as. The reference back to the AOS and the omission of the minimalistic 2009/2010 documents referred to as AOS before the 2011 version is a disgrace.

    The EIA SEA Risk approach to projects is being used as a fob to some communities who require reappraisals for alignment and infrastructure. It is suggested that the EIA comments are provided to DFT HS2 with a request to reapproach the proposed scheme on a local project by project and km by km basis. Environmental impact assessments need to be binding, traceable, realistic and competently undertaken not a a step in a Major Project process but to safeguard and protect. For the professionals who create and maintain standards of evaluations and delivery the EIA which must be commented on by 30th May is a poor document fulfilling little more than desk top considerations with little focus on rural areas where the example Crossrail and Thamestideway tunnel do not go. DFT and HS2 and other Departments have not connected with the 21st Century and with professional standard at this time and have not achieved the SEA EIA AOS Risk management and commonsense needs from the inceptions. The use of Question 6 and this very poor document Draft EIA show no improvements to date but a disregard for the project to be remitted, planned and designed again with a new mandate for intermodal shifts and wider transport delivery.

    Reply

    • Thank you Chris for your contribution.
      The apparently cavalier attitude of the DfT and its “subsidiary” HS2 Ltd to European environmental protection requirements is something that will hopefully be tested in the UK (and possibly European Union) courts in the coming months.
      The EIA scope and methodology document indicates that, at least in the matter of the examination of alternatives, HS2 Ltd intends to continue to flout the relevant EU Council Directive and I will be posting a blog on this subject at the end of this month.

      Reply

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