Are you having me on?

I am fast coming to the opinion that, whilst HS2 Ltd is prepared to pay lip service to environmental legislation (because, of course, it has to at least give the impression of complying with the law), it regards these requirements as an unnecessary obstacle to constructing its wretched railway. Now some may think that I have been naïve in taking more than two years to reach this conclusion – I always like to give the benefit of the doubt – but what has finally convinced me is the second round of community forums that has been going on whilst I have been berating the CPRE and wandering around Camden.

Those of you who read my blog Supping with the Devil, which I posted on 9 Apr 2012, will recall that after the initial meeting of my local community forum (Offchurch and Cubbington) I was prepared to make allowances for HS2 Ltd not really being “on the ball”; after all the Company has seen a huge expansion in staff and consultants since the Transport Secretary told HS2 Ltd in January that it could go on a massive spending spree and HM Treasury would sign all the cheques. However, I’m afraid that any pretence that our local communities were taking part in anything other than an expensive charade, stage-managed by HS2 Ltd, was totally shattered by the second meeting.

It’s particularly disappointing because the Government and HS2 Ltd have “talked the talk”. Justine Greening sowed the seeds of this deception when she made her announcement that HS2 was to go ahead in the House of Commons in January. Her speech included this passage:

“Having made the decision to press on with HS2, my intention is to drive it forward as fast as is practicable, so that we can gain from its benefits as early as possible and end the unwelcome uncertainty for those affected. A key part of this will be to engage fully and actively with organisations, communities and individuals along the whole route of the Y network. People presented legitimate concerns in the consultation and, even though we have made significant improvements, I am keen to work hard with local communities so that as many concerns as possible are properly addressed.”  (Hansard, 10th January 2012, Column 26 )

Now whilst I am sure that this was her intention – after all ministers don’t knowingly mislead the House, do they – she doesn’t appear to have taken the trouble of checking up on what HS2 Ltd is actually doing.  If she did she would find out that, whilst HS2 Ltd appears to be very keen to honour the first sentence of this extract (with, some might say, imprudent haste), the Company is working very hard to avoid the “engagement” part of her promise. Perhaps the Transport Secretary’s eye has been taken off the ball by the brewing row about air transport policy – or should that be lack of policy? Perhaps she knows only too well what is going on, and just doesn’t care.

The Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, Alison Munro, also appeared to “talk the talk” in a letter that she sent to parish councils in February. This letter set the scene for the community forums and promised:

“We want to work closely with parish councils, communities, local authorities and organisations to develop the design in a way which will minimise potential impacts and identify opportunities for local communities to benefit from the project.”

So, we were promised that HS2 Ltd would “engage fully and actively” and “work closely [with communities] … to develop the design”. That all seems pretty clear, you might think. You might also think that it is a generous gesture; but it is no more than we are entitled to under the United Nations Aarhus Convention, which bears the full title Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

The United Kingdom Government made the following declaration when first signing the Aarhus Convention in 1998 and confirmed it when ratifying the Convention in 2005:

“The United Kingdom understands the references in article 1 and the seventh preambular paragraph of this Convention to the ‘right’ of every person ‘to live  in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being’ to express an aspiration which motivated the negotiation of this Convention and which is shared fully by the United Kingdom. The legal rights which each Party undertakes to guarantee under article 1 are limited to the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.”

Just to make things totally clear, the seventh preambular paragraph of the Aarhus Convention says:

“Recognizing also that every person has the right to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, and the duty, both individually and in association with others, to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations.”

And Article 1 says:

“In order to contribute to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, each Party shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.”

All of this means, I think, that the United Kingdom Government agrees that local communities affected by a development proposal are entitled to the benefit of “public participation in decision-making”.

So the Transport Secretary, the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd and the might of the United Nations seem to agree that the local communities affected by the HS2 proposal should be effectively involved in the current design process that is determining what the impacts of the track and trains will be in each locality.

Even the Department for Transport on its HS2 website appears to be playing the right mood music:

“In preparation, HS2 Ltd will work closely with relevant organisations, local authorities and communities to develop the route. Together, we will identify potential impacts and explore the best opportunities to mitigate them.”

In the next blog I will look at what is actually happening.

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