Enemies of the people, part 1

As a resident of a parish through which HS2 would pass at full pelt as it careers between London and the Birmingham interchange station I have come to expect to have my motives for opposing the project questioned by its proponents. This is an expectation that I faced up to in the very first blog that I authored, Why am I doing this? (posted 10 Mar 2011). In that blog I ventured that by labelling me as a “nimby” my opponents who are in favour of HS2 “don’t have to listen to my arguments, because I would say that, wouldn’t I”.

Just a couple of months later, in my blog How rude is that? (posted 1 May 2011), I found myself having to chastise the, then, Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, for resorting to this tactic; not only did he refer to HS2’s opponents as “nimbys” but he also accused us of “peddling inaccurate scare stories”, and was quoted in a subsequent newspaper article as even referring to us as “dishonest”. In a later half-hearted apology he promised to try and mend his ways, whilst identifying journalists as the real culprits, but the slur has stuck fairly firmly, and has been used both directly and by inference quite regularly ever since – usually delivered with mock sympathy in a “if I was in your position I would be pretty cheesed off as well” sort of way.

So I did welcome one thing – albeit, I think it was the only thing that I found to my liking – in the speech delivered by the latest Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin, in the Commons on Monday 28th April 2014 when he moved that the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill “be read a second time”. He said, as transcribed in column 569 of the House of Commons Official Report:

“Of course I understand the depth of concern that the line has caused in some places, which is why I have made it clear to my officials that there is no place in the Department or in HS2 for talk of luddites or nimbys. We must respect people and try to meet their concerns.”

However, I’m not sure that the Transport Secretary was entirely sincere about this sentiment,  because he had made a comment earlier in his speech that was a not-too-subtle indication that he still regarded the opponents of HS2 as luddites. Referring to the Bill that was placed before Parliament when permission was being sought to construct the West Coast Main Line, he said (column 557 in the House of Commons Official Report):

“It is worth recalling that in 1832 Parliament rejected the initial Bill because some people objected, arguing that canals were all we would ever need for long-distance travel.”

So perhaps the new rules are that you can imply that the opponents of HS2 are luddites and nimbys, just so long as you don’t actually use the words.

So we will have to wait for the signs that the new policy of treating people with respect and seeking to meet our concerns has started. If it happens, it will be quite a change; what a shame that it has taken four years for the penny to drop that people should be treated with respect and not with utter contempt.

But just when it looks that one heavyweight Tory might just be getting off our backs – or is at least saying that he will – it appears that another wants to climb on. I refer to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. In a recent extended interview with Total Politics he pontificated that:

“People are in the humiliating position of having to pretend that there’s some environmental objection that they have, that the great crested grebe is going to be invaded or whatever. What they care about is their house prices. They don’t care about…it’s tragic we have protest groups talking about ‘this ancient woodland’ when actually there’s no tree in this country that’s more than 200 years old…most mature trees die at about the age of my age, the average life expectancy of a tree can’t be more than about 60 years. There aren’t that many ancient woodlands around is the point I’m trying to make.”

If this was meant as a joke, and it is surely inconceivable that he was totally serious, then the Woodland Trust didn’t see the funny side. In a press release Hilary Allison, Policy Director at the Trust, dismisses his comments as showing “breathtaking ignorance and environmental illiteracy in equal measure” and I’m sure that my readers will not need an explanation of why she would make this judgement.

(To be concluded …)

 

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