An exercise in creative writing

To judge by the job adverts and announcements of appointments that have appeared in recent months, HS2 Ltd regards the management of news about HS2 as an important constituent of its function. An interesting insight into just how much importance is attached to the noble art of “spinning” by HS2 Ltd top brass may be gained by reading Beleben’s blog Tayloring the spin message.

I don’t envy the members of the HS2 Ltd “spin doctor” department; it can’t be easy sugaring the very bitter pill that is HS2. Take for example the recent task that they had of preparing a press release about the radical change of plan for HS2’s proposed London terminus at Euston Station. As I explained in my blog On second thoughts … (posted 30 Apr 2013), the circumstances of this announcement are very sensitive for HS2 Ltd management. It appears that as work has progressed with the design of the new Euston Station it has become apparent that sticking with the original plans will mean an overspend of £500 million and that the new station will not be complete until well after the scheduled in-service date for Phase 1. With the UK’s track record of large-scale construction projects, this overspend and delay would be very likely to become even worse as work progresses.

The alternative proposal that the engineers have come up with cannot be seen as anything other than an inferior proposition, falling far short of the ambitious prospectus set out in the leaflet Euston Station that was prepared for the 2011 consultation roadshows.

The spin doctors must have been very aware of the risk of a critical media reaction; the story needed careful handling in order to avoid words like “fiasco”, “omnishambles”, “cock-up” and “incompetence” – all of which seem appropriate epithets for what has occurred – appearing in media reports. The strategy that they worked out appears to have two main elements.

The first is to avoid any direct references to the reasons for the change of plan. So instead of admitting that sticking to the original scheme would result in at least a £500 million overspend, the press release refers to the new scheme achieving the “best value for money for taxpayers”. Similarly, whilst admitting that the original scheme would have taken “more than a decade” to complete, the press release skirts around the plain fact that this was outside the project schedule. So rather than admitting that HS2 Ltd has been forced to adopt a much less ambitious plan to bring the project in on time, the press release claims that the revised plan will result in “minimising disruption to commuters and residents”.

The second plank of the strategy is to talk up the virtues of the new design, irrespective of the inescapable fact that it is a shoddy, make do and mend substitute for a badly needed rebuild at Euston. This approach is evident right from the very first paragraph of the press release:

“Euston Station will be redeveloped and improved to become the gateway to the great cities of the Midlands and North as part of plans for HS2. And under new proposals this could be achieved without the need to lower and rebuild all the existing platforms – minimising disruption to commuters and residents.”

In order to make the selling of the inferior solution more credible, it has also been necessary to ignore, or play down, some inconvenient consequencies of the change of plan.

Foremost of these, which the press release totally ignores, is any changes to the building demolition schedule that may result from the new scheme. All that has been provided is an “artist’s impression” that shows the surviving buildings around the station in identifiable detail, but poses more questions than it answers – questions that I have  tried to identify in my blog Surely they would have said (posted 4 May 2013).

There is also a strong suspicion amongst some of those who have been involved in discussions with HS2 Ltd that the new plans will require a significant scaling back of the plans for over-station development, including replacement homes and recreational spaces for the local community. Camden Council leader, Cllr Sarah Hayward, was quoted in a recent article in the Camden New Journal as complaining:

“The single discernible benefit from HS2 was the over-station development. But with this new station Camden will get all of the demolition, all the construction, all the disruption, with no gains for the communities, no jobs or affordable homes.”

Characteristically, the press release lacks clarity on this matter. Alison Munro, Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, is quoted in the press release as promising:

“We also realise the importance Camden Council places on over-station development, and our proposal for Euston enables this, with potential for future homes, businesses and open space.”

This is hardly an assurance that the development plans have not been scaled back, and elsewhere in the press release we are only promised “potential opportunities for over-station development”.

The press release is also unclear about whether the “new Underground ticket hall” will still be, as we were promised in the Euston Station leaflet, “four times larger than the current one … to cater for the increased passenger numbers”.

All of the foregoing can be to some extent forgiven as normal stock in trade of the spin doctor, but there is one claim in the press release that goes “beyond the pale” as far as I am concerned. The assertion that the new design was “developed partly in response to concerns from the community about the potential disruption caused by redevelopment that would have taken more than a decade” is a bit rich. Any community representatives who have been unfortunate enough to have had dealings with HS2 will confirm, I am sure, that the wishes of the local community are always the very last thing on the mind of the engineers and managers of HS2 Ltd.

I was also taken aback by the explanation for what has gone on offered by Clinton Leeks, External and Parliamentary Relations Director at HS2 Ltd, and reported in the 18th April 2013 issue of the Camden New Journal. According to Mr Leeks, “All forecasts are forecasts”. I guess that must be true Mr Leeks, it’s just that some forecasts turn out to be rubbish, don’t they.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Euston Community Forum Member on May 8, 2013 at 6:52 am

    You are completely correct – the new lean-to “low cost” option being thrust upon Euston still requires the demolition of all the blocks of housing identified to date, the destruction of St. James Gardens and the Drummond Street restaurant community, but without any of the benefits of East-West permeability created by the ground level concourse proposed in the previous version. There are no additional benefits whatsoever accruing to the community from this revised plan – it is indeed a con. In fact it appears from HS2 recent presentations that a further social housing block is required to be demolished to make way for the tracks to the West!

    Reply

    • Thanks “Euston Community Forum Member” for providing the first confirmation that I have been able to obtain that my fears for the Cartmel block in the Regent’s Park Estate are not unfounded. I thought long and hard before posting the results of my examination of the HS2 Ltd drawing, as I did not want to risk worrying those who might be affected without good cause. I did try to obtain confirmation by e-mail from one or two Camden representatives that I have contact with, prior to posting my blog, but they were not able to oblige.

      Reply

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