“Words, words, words”

(In response to a request I am posting this blog ahead of the usual four-day schedule, which would have seen it published on 7th August. I intend to return to the original schedule with the blog that follows, which I will post on 11th August).

So what justification do I have for condemning the promises of local community involvement in the HS2 planning process that I quoted in my blog Are you having me on? (posted 3 Aug 2012) as just being, as Hamlet said, “words, words, words”?

Perhaps I should start with a very quotable quote uttered by the Country North Area Manager for HS2 Ltd at a recent meeting of the Stoneleigh, Kenilworth and Burton Green Community Forum, as reported by one of the community representatives who attended (I wasn’t there):

“This is an engagement process, not a consultation.”

You might think, like me, that this is a fairly fine distinction. To “engage” according to the Oxford Dictionary is to “participate or become involved in” or “establish a meaningful contact or connection with”. The same tome advises us that to “consult” is to “have discussions with (someone), typically before undertaking a course of action”.

You might also think, as I do, that if HS2 Ltd is to, as the DfT website suggests, “work closely with relevant organisations, local authorities and communities to develop the route” so that by working “together” it will be possible to “identify potential impacts and explore the best opportunities to mitigate them”, then that implies that “consultation” will be an element of the “engagement” process. After all it seems fairly pointless (some might say perverse) to get local community representatives to attend meetings and then for HS2 Ltd not to be interested in what they say. You may think it perverse, but it appears that is precisely what is happening.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my own community forum, which is Offchurch and Cubbington. At the initial meeting at the end of March, the Offchurch and Cubbington action groups were each given leave to submit separate proposals suggesting changes to the design of the HS2 route, intended to reduce the impacts. This was recorded as Action 8 in the minutes produced by HS2 Ltd, as follows:

“HS2 Ltd to review the engineering feasibility of the proposals for a cut and cover tunnel in Offchurch and bored tunnel in Cubbington Wood and proposals tabled and provide an initial response or update at the next forum meeting.”

The thinking behind this approach, at least as far as the action groups were concerned, was that the local community representatives had each looked closely at the HS2 route details that had been published in January 2012 and seen ways in which things might be done differently, with benefits to the local environment and communities. Whilst the local communities felt that these alternative proposals were feasible, it was recognised that HS2 Ltd engineers were best placed to judge this, and that they may find engineering difficulties with aspects of these alternatives. If so, these could be discussed and the alternative design modified in consultation with the communities, if necessary, or, in the extreme, discarded by agreement of the parties, if proven to be totally infeasible.

Only when this process had been completed, to the satisfaction of both parties, would it be appropriate to discuss cost implications of the alternatives; at least this was the view of the action groups.

The proposals were both submitted by e-mail on 1st May. The Cubbington document is based upon the bored tunnel solution that I outlined in my blog Thinking three-dimensionally (posted 29 Feb 2012). Although this proposal was primarily motivated by a desire to save South Cubbington Wood and the Champion wild pear tree from destruction, it provides a number of valuable additional benefits to the area. It is a considered document and was produced under the tutorage of an experienced civil engineer. It is the product of many man-hours of commitment. I like to think that it deserves to be taken seriously by HS2 Ltd.

However any expectations that this submission would be given proper consideration by HS2 Ltd, were shattered at the second meeting of the Offchurch and Cubbington Community Forum held towards the end of June. HS2 Ltd tabled a schedule of Actions from Community Forum and all that it said against action point 8 was “under review”. So despite having had the document for just over seven weeks, HS2 Ltd was unable to offer any comments on its engineering feasibility, only a vague observation was made that HS2 Ltd was looking at other options on a cost-neutral basis. No details of these other options were revealed and the distinct impression was that representatives of the community of Cubbington would not be involved in any discussions of such alternative proposals, but would be presented with a fait accompli.

But that’s not all. During a PowerPoint presentation we were shown by HS2 Ltd, it emerged that the route design would be finalised in November/December this year. However on a project time plan included in the presentation, the period for “feedback on submitted proposals” was shown as spanning a four-month period that only started at around November 2012. This made it very clear that HS2 Ltd had no intention of undertaking valid discussions of submitted proposals at a stage where the design was still open to change.

The response of the meeting to this news was a demand that bilateral meetings be held urgently with HS2 Ltd to discuss the community proposals. This was met with resistance and, after some pressure, an agreement to refer back to higher HS2 Ltd management and respond in two weeks.

So I think that is becoming clear what the distinction is between “engagement” and “consultation”, at least in the eyes of HS2 Ltd. Consultation, which is not what we are getting, is where you listen to communities and take account of what they say in the design process. Engagement, which is what we are getting, is where you get community representatives together on as few occasions as you can get away with, and just tell them what you are going to do.

It appears to me that HS2 Ltd is either a very incompetent organisation, or a very cynical one. Either way it stands condemned.

PS: Since the blog was written HS2 Ltd has offered dates in August for a series of bilateral meetings. It remains to be seen whether this will be much of the same, or whether HS2 Ltd has got the message that it has a responsibility to enable local communities affected by HS2 to partake in a genuine dialogue. I will report back in a future blog.  

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Joe Rukin, Chairman of the Kenilworth Stop HS2 Action Group, for circulating to other action groups a report on the meeting of the Stoneleigh, Kenilworth and Burton Green Community Forum that was held on 26th June 2012, which includes the quote by the Country North Area Manager for HS2 Ltd.

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