Breaking the camel’s back

If I have say it myself, when it comes to responding to the public consultations that have been held in connection with Phase 1 of HS2, I have been a paragon. Whenever the e-mail or letter announcing yet another consultation has come to my attention I have reacted to the stimulus like one of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating in anticipation of setting my comments down on paper. Most recently, in the last few weeks I have written two substantial documents commenting on the compensation proposals (totalling 55 pages) and, jointly with other representatives from my local community, I put together a detailed commentary on the draft Environmental Statement in July (49 pages). I have shown this level of commitment despite the notion, as I expressed in my blog Totally brassed off (posted 7 Jul 2013), that “all of my efforts are sitting on the table on the far side of the office” without any notice being taken of them.

However, a straw has just landed on my metaphorical camel’s back that has shattered its spine. Well “straw” is probably not the correct word to describe the HS2 Phase One Environmental Statement (ES), since according to an article in the Daily Telegraph it comprises around 50,000 pages and, if printed out, would weigh more than a tonne – so more like a small car than a straw, and certainly massive enough to shatter the vertebrae of any member of the genus Camelus.

As readers of this blog will surely be aware, the Government is running yet another consultation – well strictly speaking it is being masterminded by the “Parliamentary authorities” – and is inviting us to comment on this document. This consultation closes on 24th January 2014, a mere eight weeks from its launch. The Daily Telegraph article quotes Ralph Smyth of the Campaign to Protect Rural England – yes our friend Mr Ferrari – complaining that:

“The Government has chosen the minimum length of time allowed for its consultation on the biggest ever environmental impact assessment in UK history. A 56 day formal consultation period for 50,000 pages of documents means you would need to read 1,000 pages a day just to know what is proposed. To add insult to injury this period includes the Christmas and New Year holidays, when Parliament has 23 days off.”

Once again, it appears, the Government’s HS2 dirty tricks department is riding roughshod – or should that be “jackbooted” – over the masses. So please forgive me, but far from salivating at the prospect of getting stuck into this new consultation, this particular Pavlovian canine has turned over with its legs in the air.

In another Daily Telegraph article a Government spokesman offers us the reassurance that the ES “is fully searchable online, enabling people to review the section relevant to them”. This is true to the extent that the parts of the ES that deal with specific areas will only be relevant to those living there. However, the trick will be to recognise which sections can be safely skipped and which might contain information that is relevant. The second Daily Telegraph article also quotes Mr Smyth:

“Of course people are going to want to read more than just the bits that apply directly to them. To get the full picture, you’ve got to have an overview of the whole thing.”

There are very good reasons for reading as much of the ES as each of us can manage. I think that we can be sure that there will be errors, perhaps many errors, within its pages. Also some of us may discover nasty surprises within its more than twenty million words. However, I do not think that responding to the consultation with a paragraph by paragraph analysis is feasible. Even if it were possible to do this, I am not really sure that it would achieve much, bearing in mind the way in which previous consultation responses have been treated and the difficulty in bringing our comments to our target audience, which must be the Members of Parliament who will be deliberating on the contents of the hybrid Bill (particularly those poor souls who will be coerced into sitting on the Bill’s committee). Whilst all received responses to the consultation must be published and deposited in the Private Bill Office in the House of Commons, I think it is unrealistic to expect that many MPs will take the trouble to read our comments directly. The raw comments will be “summarised” by an independent assessor appointed to that task by Examiner of Private Bills in the House of Commons. This assessor will be given twenty-eight days to complete this task – well actually the Commons Standing Orders require that this shall be the minimum time allowed, but the Government is working to minimum time lines as we know – so the assessor probably has an even harder task than we do and, even with the best will in the world, much may be omitted from the analysis.

In a very helpful blog on the website of Parliamentary agents Bircham Dyson Bell, partner of the firm Paul Thompson is rather more upbeat than me about the effect that responding to the consultation may have:

“If the Government agrees with the comments, it may seek to address them. Even if it does not, these will then be available to be picked up by MPs, including at least to some degree by members of the Select Committee to whom petitions are referred, and whether or not they are particularly highlighted in the assessor’s report.”

Notwithstanding, Mr Thompson does identify one really good reason for responding to the consultation if you are planning to petition the hybrid Bill:

“If a petitioner does have issues to raise on the ES, being ones which the Select Committee accepts fall within its remit and which it will therefore be prepared to consider, it could well hold it against the petitioner if these have not also been raised with the Minister under this new process.  Equally, the Government’s representatives before the Committee may take any omission to do so as a point of prejudice.”

He also issues a warning:

“Tempting as it may be just to pick through the non-technical summary, it is the main reports and the technical data underlying them that really matter. They are where the answer to the fundamental questions and the basis for any real challenges lie.”

So my own particular tactic for surviving the next couple of months is to read as much of the ES as I can, but to concentrate primarily on the impacts on my local community. If I come across anything major on general policy that I think is wrong I will note that also, but I will not be going out of my way to correct the Government’s homework. Whilst I do this, I will be looking out for whether anything has changed regarding local impacts and the comments that were made by my community on the draft ES.

I think that my community must now concentrate on preparing our petition(s) against the hybrid Bill, and this must be the main thrust of our opposition. To this end we need to be mindful of Mr Thompson’s advice and make sure that our response to the ES consultation, however abbreviated it may turn out to be, covers at least all of the points that we consider we may wish to petition on.

So, insofar as the request made by Chris in his comment against my blog At least I’m listening (posted 28 Nov 2013) is concerned, I’m afraid that I am going to have to disappoint him. At the moment, I’m not planning any blogs specifically critiquing the ES. After all, you can’t expect a camel with a broken back to carry any loads for you.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Keep up the good work Peter; there is every possibility that the government will realise they have been backing a loser when a much better plan is published. Coming soon.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on December 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    How would a much better plan be measured. In the comparison of the eight phase 1 route sections how would the differences be measured between the options. Unless there is a transport and a separate development criteria there is not the basis for objective comparision. It has been realised that better is achievable by providing services for the wider railway uses and passing nearer to higher population areas. For example the best route may be along the East Coast of England and a better route to the west of the current HS2. However the routes are for people and require stations where people want to or have to travel to and from. HS2 is and always has been a poor railway proposition. There has been a lack of sensitivity analysis.

    I would image some notice has been taken but the DFT HS2 and consultants have not been managed to address the needs for changes to the route. There must be very disenchantment of people in London and the offices working on this scheme who know they have got HS2 phase 1 wrong and they have not the courage to change from the current HS2 unviable arrangement to a more effective proposal.


  3. Posted by chriseaglen on December 6, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    To get the full picture, you’ve got to have an overview of the whole thing. No need for the full picture and full picture. When you know the areas of interest and the salient issues simply work backwards. The famour Bellman principle. Start where you want to end. For example open the communities eyes because not all know their burden and loss.

    Work has to be done to change this phase 1 routing to be affordable and to meet commuter and long distance needs. The Non Technical Summary is sufficient to raise the interest of any community and to focus the people on their observations and demands for change. Target the prime issues and damage. Focus primarily on the impacts of your local community. Then using key word search find the relevant text to relate the issue to. 6 Questions 6 points per questions is only 36 subsections. A group of any community can identify the 36 issues in one afternoon knowing what you do now.
    Dont fall for the bullying or volume of words and texts.

    HMG DFT and HS2 are trying to break you down and attracting collaborations to remove the collect local locus at petitioning. Do your best and remember it is the power of argument and spirit of the people that counts. You all have the votes in 2014 and 2015 and mobilise the women to keep the hope and double the contributions.

    The civil society responses are clearly in place as seen in the recent London visits. Cameron and a few people are running the gaunlet with a poor scheme and they need to find better approaches. Unfortunately the front end planning was poorly done and there is now politiican dominance defending a poor scheme. The responses to the ES and petitioning has repesent possibly more than one Community Forum to make the points. The salami presentations is to limit the damage per CFA not the total phase 1 damage. You are not on your own and the brain, humor and fingers are all that is needed now. Most is behind the communities now two more submissions and then the European voting of 2014 and the start or reality for the Coalition that people have objections to £50B on a railway and particularly for phase 1 Route 3.


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