Changing of the guard

A new face turned up at a recent “bilateral” meeting between the action groups of Offchurch and Cubbington and HS2 Ltd, and announced that he had recently been appointed as the Country North Area Engineering Manager.

The new man turned up again at the full meeting of the Offchurch and Cubbington Community Forum that took place a week or so later and made some opening remarks to the proceedings. Although my note taking is not up to making a verbatim record, I think that I got at least the gist of what he said down on paper.

He informed us that the engineering team at HS2 Ltd had been “reinforced” and that this would allow improved responses to community proposals. He admitted – and I am certain that this is a direct quote – to an “historic reluctance” to “let information out” and assured us that “this ends tonight”.

My impression at the time was that he was sincere about this, and his implicit admission that HS2 Ltd had been at fault was very welcome. However, I am conscious that, although he is a senior manager, he is not at the very top of the HS2 Ltd pecking order. I have always thought that the problems that local communities were experiencing with having meaningful dialogue with HS2 Ltd were more to do with management policy than resources. I hope that what we were hearing had been cleared at Board level and was the result of a genuine shift in company values, and was not just the reaction of a reasonable individual, new to the organisation, recognising that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

There is certainly some evidence of a change in mindset in the release of information about the output from recent route design work. Although this work is not completed, drawings showing the current state of the design have been tabled at the recent bilateral and full community forum meetings. This is not new; we have been shown such drawings before. What is new is that we were provided with copies to take away and show our communities. Even more surprisingly, at least to me, was that when I e-mailed HS2 Ltd to request data files for the drawings, they were provided by return.

Also indicative of a change is that I have finally been provided with the flood level data for the River Leam that I first requested last August. This information indicates that the reason given by HS2 Ltd for the post-consultation increase in trackbed height across the Leam Valley – “issues with crossing of flood plain” – does not hold water (excuse the pun). The proposed viaduct appears to be at least five metres higher than the flood water requirements dictate.

I am tempted to speculate just how far this apparent attempt at largesse by HS2 Ltd might stretch. How, for example, would the request that I made last year to circulate to other members of my community forum the PowerPoint file for my presentation that I mention in my blog A sound idea (posted 23 Nov 2012) be received if it were made now? At the time my request was flatly refused, on the basis that the HS2 Ltd Secretariat could not “justify circulating material that has the tone of being anti-HS2”. Would HS2 Ltd really treat the request less petulantly today? I’m afraid to say that I doubt it.

Now in the face of an apparent onrush of goodwill you may think that I am being churlish to cast a cloud upon the issue, but I’m afraid that my scepticism doesn’t end there. You see, it’s all rather late in the day for Phase 1; the engineering work appears to be at a fairly advanced stage and the environmentalists are preparing the data that they have gathered for analysis in the Environmental Specification due to be published, so they tell us, in a matter of weeks. We have been told that the next round of community forums will not be held before the autumn, although a round of bilateral meetings is planned for this month. Since the hybrid bill proceedings in Parliament are still, I understand, planned to start later this year, the signs are that the “engagement” exercise that the community forums were purported to be has almost run its course.

Also, the reluctance to share information is only a part of the frustration that local community representatives have experienced with the conduct of the community forums. In setting up the community forums last year, the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd said, in a letter sent to local community bodies, that her company wanted, “to work closely with parish councils, communities, local authorities and organisations to develop the design in a way which will minimise potential impacts”. In my blogs Are you having me on? (posted 3 Aug 2012) and “Words, words, words” (posted 4 Aug 2012) I explained why I thought at the time that this just wasn’t happening. I feel bound to say that it still isn’t happening and the opening remarks made by the new Country North Area Engineering Manager gave no indication that there would be any meaningful change in the quality of community engagement.

This pessimistic view is reinforced by the confirmation that we were given at the meeting that the mitigation proposals that our communities made to HS2 Ltd last year will not be discussed with us until the design has been “put to bed”. Since the design drawings that have been provided to our community forum show no indication whatsoever of any of our proposals having been adopted, it seems very unlikely that our “engagement” has been to any purpose.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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