Pass me my rose-tinted specs (part 1)

Less than three hours after the details of the Transport Secretary’s decision to announce the go-ahead for the HS2 proposal had been published on the Department for Transport’s website on 10th January 2012, a press release (here) was posted on the website of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

Now in order to respond this quickly you might think that the CPRE must have had some advance notice of what was in the mountain of paperwork that had been e-published that morning. However, the contents of the press release seem to indicate that, even if the CPRE had been given the opportunity to read the documents before publication, this had not been done very diligently. Well there was, I admit, an awful lot to read; but even so, the CPRE seems very much to have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Well when I say the CPRE what I really mean is its Chief Executive, Shaun Spiers. Aside from this one blemish on its record that the 10th January press release represents, the CPRE has treated the HS2 proposals with caution and has stressed that a final judgement on HS2 will not be possible until the full environmental impacts and the degree to which these can be mitigated are fully understood. Indeed, even the 10th January press release starts off reflecting this caution and is well within Right Lines Charter territory:

“The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) welcomes the Government’s commitment to invest in rail rather than seeking to promote new roads or air travel. But there is a long way to go before we can be sure that High Speed 2 (HS2) will not have an unacceptable impact on the landscape and local communities.”

So far so good, but then the remainder of the press release is given over to quotes by Mr Spiers and, to judge from these, he appears to have a very loose grip on reality. His opening sentence is slightly unsettling:

“We are pleased the Government has shown its commitment to Britain’s railways while being sensitive to the impact that HS2 will have on communities and the countryside.”

Now if Mr Spiers is looking for true commitment to Britain’s railways there are many areas that are crying out for investment and that will benefit many more people than HS2. Many of these will be much less damaging to the rural environment that the CPRE says it wants to protect and will give a much better return for the taxpayer. As fellow Right Lines Charter signatory Friends of the Earth said in its own press release about the HS2 statement (here):

“We need to revolutionise travel away from roads and planes – but pumping £32 billion into high speed travel for the wealthy few while ordinary commuters suffer is not the answer.”

As for the Government “being sensitive” to the environmental impacts of HS2, I think that Mr Spiers will have trouble selling that to many communities up and down the line. For instance, I don’t think that the general increase in trackbed level that I commented on in my blog The ups and downs of route engineering (posted 9 Feb 2012) can be described as an environmentally-sensitive design change and has certainly not been welcome news for many residents.

All HS2 Ltd appears to have done is address problems in a small number of high-profile locations, with varying degrees of benefit; these locations are listed out in paragraph 2 of the Executive  Summary of the document Review of possible refinements to the proposed HS2 London to West Midlands Route (here). South Cubbington Wood is one of the locations listed and my verdict on what is proposed there, given in my blog Doing it on the cheap (posted 4 Mar 2012), is that the design change does little or nothing to lessen the devastation that the Wood will suffer. I venture that this is not the only example in the HS2 Ltd list where claimed benefits exceed what has actually been achieved.

Mr Spiers appears to be overly encouraged by this route tinkering that has taken place, claiming:

“It appears that Ministers really have engaged with the consultation responses.  So we welcome the changes that have been announced, notably the further tunnelling in the Chilterns and alterations to the route to avoid important heritage sites. Justine Greening is right that in delivering this important scheme we must safeguard the natural environment and our beautiful countryside.”

Bearing in mind that the Transport Secretary had just announced the go-ahead to a scheme that will result in severe damage to “the natural environment and our beautiful countryside” this is an incredible conclusion for the Chief Executive of one of our foremost environmental charities to reach. It is an even more incredible endorsement when you consider that HS2, post consultation, appears to be no nearer to satisfying any of the four principles of the Right Lines Charter.

Surely, anyone who reads the HS2 Ltd document Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability (here) and my blogs commenting upon its contents will find it hard to agree with Mr Spiers’ assessment that “Ministers really have engaged with the consultation responses”.

(To be continued …)

PS: The Right Lines Charter (here), which sets out four principles “for doing High Speed Rail well”, is supported by thirteen national environmental organisations. The stated purpose of the Charter is “to challenge the way the HS2 proposals have been developed and the context they have been developed in”. For my comments on this initiative please refer to my blog Wheeling out the big guns (posted 1 Aug 2011).

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