Supping with the Devil

In my blog Meeting at the Forum (posted 5 Apr 2012) I mentioned the Community Forums that HS2 Ltd has set up to help “build a relationship with local communities”. In this current blog I will give my personal reactions to the Community Forum idea, including some feedback from attending the first meeting of my local forum, which covers the route through the mainly rural area of Warwickshire that lies within the parishes of Offchurch and Cubbington.

Some members of the campaign against HS2 feel that sitting down with HS2 Ltd at this early stage amounts to an admission of defeat in the war against HS2. In their eyes, collaboration undermines the position of those who think that the only satisfactory “mitigation” against the environmental impacts of HS2 is to stop it in its tracks.

I appreciate that supping with the Devil has its dangers, and remain totally opposed to the HS2 project. However, I feel that I would be failing my local community if I were to turn down any opportunity to contribute to measures being agreed that may lessen the impact that HS2, were it to be built, will have on our local environment. I also think that the mitigation that has been proposed so far has indicated that the communities that have got their proposals in early have faired better and that the rest of us are facing a limited window of opportunity in which to negotiate our own improvements and a diminishing pot of money to pay for them. On this basis, I have opted to take part in our local Community Forum.

However, I do not think that the Community Forums will, on their own, be a sufficient mechanism to allow full discussion of local issues and mitigation proposals. A meeting of twenty or more people is hardly the place to discuss problems and proposals in the required detail. With this in mind, I am pleased to see that the HS2 Ltd diagram that I reproduced in Meeting at the Forum shows “ongoing bilaterals” as external to the forum structure. The briefing note confirms this interpretation of the diagram, promising that the “three-part structure” will be “supplemented by bilateral meetings and engagement, particularly in relation to bespoke issues and localised matters”. However, my own action group and our friends in neighbouring Offchurch have jointly been seeking such a bilateral meeting with HS2 Ltd to discuss our local issues, so far with a promise of a meeting but no actual date.

We had our first meeting of the Offchurch and Cubbington Community Forum at the end of March. I was pleased to be introduced to the members of our “geographically-focused development team”; these being HS2 Ltd employees with specialisms such as route engineering and environmental matters, who will work specifically on the area covered by a number of identified community forums, including ours. This should allow a continuity of personal relationships and encourage us all to get to know one another over the coming months.

We all tried hard to be pleasant to one another. I appreciate that it cannot be easy for professional employees of HS2 Ltd to be taken to task on matters by a bunch of amateurs (sorry, I mean representatives of the local community). Likewise, one or two of us local representatives got a trifle hot under the collar when HS2 Ltd staff demonstrated that they hadn’t taken the trouble to get up to speed with local details. However, some of these individuals appeared to be fairly new in their jobs and we should allow time for them to study their briefs. However, this is an excuse that will cut no ice at the second and subsequent meetings.

It was also apparent that HS2 Ltd hasn’t really thought through some important ramifications of the community forum idea, such as public (and press) access to proceedings and keeping the local community informed generally. There were also some administrative matters that were lacking in detail, such as keeping and approving minutes (or notes) of the meetings and how members of the group would communicate with each other in the periods between meetings.

I think that generally the meeting went well and I learnt a number of things which hadn’t been apparent from the written material that has been published by HS2 Ltd. However, the real test will come further down the line when HS2 Ltd feels that it must say no to a proposal from the locals.

At that point the smiles will probably be wiped off our faces.


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