Enemies of the people, part 2

(… continued from Enemies of the people, part 1, posted on 7 May 2014).

For a man with a predilection for Latin epigrams, Oxford University classics graduate Boris Johnson surprisingly discarded refinement when he summed up in his interview with Total Politics his feelings about people, like me, who are concerned about the impacts that HS2 would have on our environment:

“It’s bollocks. They’re not campaigning for forests, they’re not campaigning for butterflies. They pretend to be obviously, but what they’re really furious about is that their house prices are getting it.”

Judging by what he had just said about the age of trees and ancient woodland, the mild profanity that Mr Johnson used would, you might have thought, be more fitting as a description of his own views on the subject. He also appears to have his own “beam in the eye” when it comes to HS2; he just hasn’t been consistent in his approach. Just as recently as March the view that “there are many better ways to spend the money” was attributed to him in an article in the Financial Times (subscription required).

In a sequence of manoeuvres that even Machiavelli would have admired for their sheer duplicity, he has, by turns, blown hot and cold on the HS2 project. It is clear that he regards HS2 as a political chess piece that he can move forward and back (and sometimes diagonally and sideways) in order to gain maximum advantage for his own pet projects. It is not entirely a coincidence, therefore, that the Financial Times reports him as citing both Crossrail 2 and “Boris Island” – yes really, I kid you not – as “better ideas” that are more deserving of the (borrowed) cash. So, I can’t think of anyone who is less fit to accuse others of disingenuousness.

And even if we leave aside the sheer effrontery of the man, he is simply wrong. Of course there are many opponents of HS2, the Mayor’s own father amongst them, who are more than a little upset about the impact that the HS2 proposal has had on the value of their homes. However, such people are fighting directly for mitigation to lessen the impacts and for improvements to the miserably mean compensation proposals; these arguments are quite distinct from those made by opponents who are “campaigning for forests [or] campaigning for butterflies”.

That there are many who are raising concerns about the impacts that HS2 will have on our natural environment, which include amongst their ranks more than a few who have not been personally hit in the wallet and even live many miles from the proposed route, is due to the severity of the expected impacts and the apparent disregard for the welfare of our environment demonstrated by the Government, not because such concerns are seen as a back-door way to address blight issues. Of course, some of us who live along the proposed route tend to focus on environmental issues in our local patch, but this is due, I firmly believe, to the love of the countryside in our own back yards that develops from familiarity with it, not as a reaction to falling house prices in the neighbourhood. As I will be reporting in my next series of blogs, the ranks of the environmental HS2 naysayers has recently been joined by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, and Mr Johnson’s theory clearly falls down in that instance, at least.

The only thing that I can say in the Mayor’s favour is that he did not resort to using the labels “luddite” and “nimby” for campaigners against HS2; he reserved the latter tag for those who “stop good developments [of new homes] from going ahead”, who would accordingly appear to be, in his eyes, even worse.

And it is not only the Tory colonels that feel obliged to snipe at the many concerned residents of the Shires – a group that includes many amongst them who have shown unwavering support for the Conservative Party hitherto – even the subalterns feel they can chip in. When he gave oral evidence to the aforementioned Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, said that he foresaw that some of the petitions that would be laid before the Select Committee for the Phase 1 hybrid Bill would be submitted “possibly for vexatious reasons, for reasons of trying to gum up the process, trying to delay the project” (refer to Q100 in the transcript). He went on to say:

“I think the [hybrid Bill Select] Committee do face a big challenge in trying to separate the wheat from the chaff to make sure that they do not get gummed up by petitions that are there purely to gum up the process—in the same way we have seen a number of legal challenges and judicial reviews that I suspect were there to gum up the process—and the genuine type of considerations that the Committee will need to consider and then bring forward their recommendations at the end of the process.”

Now, when he made these ill-considered remarks Mr Goodwill could not possible have been in the position to judge whether this would be the case, since the window for the submission of petitions had yet to be opened at the time. I come into contact virtually every day with people who are working on drafting petitions, both as group submissions and on their own behalf. Getting these petitions together is a demanding and time-consuming task, and I can assure Mr Goodwill that the motivation behind all this effort is to seek genuine improvements, not to play games. The chance to put a case to an independent committee of Members of Parliament, who we trust to give us a fair hearing, rather than, as has been our experience up to now, being ignored by HS2 Ltd is too good an opportunity to use simply to delay Royal Assent.

I also think that Mr Goodwill is spectacularly wrong about the motivation behind the legal challenges that have been made by opponents of HS2. The judicial reviews were heard by a total of eleven judges in their passage through three courts and, as far as I am aware, no judge expressed the view that the actions had been launched to “gum up the process”. Certainly, the view expressed by the Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, Lady Hale, that she had “not found this an easy case” indicates that she did not think the issues that the cases had raised were in any sense trivial. Furthermore, I find it inconceivable that the one outcome that did result in a delay – the decision of The Hon Mr Justice Ouseley to rule the consultation on property consultation unlawful – was the aim of that action. Seeking a victory that would delay the payment of improved compensation to homeowners would make it a truly pyrrhic one, surely.

I believe that the slurs result from frustration and annoyance on the part of politicians that the case for HS2 has proved to be rather threadbare in the face of some convincing rebuttals from those who oppose it. I have lost count of the number of “re-launches” of the HS2 proposal, but these have all been doomed because, as the Members of the House of Commons have been reminded recently by the Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP, “it’s like putting lipstick on a pig”.

It is clear that the political circumstances of the proposal, with all-party frontbench support and the use of the whip, are serving to deprive Parliament of two important functions that it should provide: representation of the people, and scrutiny of government. On the first count, there is clearly something awry when the Second Reading division returns an 11:1 majority in favour of HS2, whereas opinion polling indicates there is approaching a 2:1 majority against in the electorate that the House of Commons has been mandated to serve. On the second count, the acceptance of the principle of the HS2 proposal that is signified by the result of the Second Reading division and the way that strategic environment assessment has been circumvented mean that debate on the alternatives to a thoroughly-bad proposal has now been stifled.

Just in case there is any doubt, the title of this blog is directed at the 452 MPs who voted for the Second Reading, especially those who sit on the frontbenches, the Mayor of London and the unelected minister who set the ball rolling in the first place. You may think that citing these folk as “enemies of the people” is a bit over the top; perhaps it is, but they are certainly not, in this case, allies of the majority of the people.



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Les Fawcett on May 11, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Boris’s loose comments could be helpful. If people really are to lose value from their houses, it means that compensation is inadequate. If compensation is to be adequate, does this mean that it will have to be extended from the current offer? Compensation to one houseowner inevitably impinges on the value of its neighbours. So where should compensation stop? It would not be equitable to set a fixed distance from the railway because properties are affected differently according to factors such as topgraphy, the relative levels of the railway and the house, any intervening soil bank and whether the railway is elevated or sunk. Demolition of one house demolishes the value of its neighbours. Fair compensation could gobble up much of the contingencies before construction starts.

    I think the strong majority in favour of the bill is a testament to the skill of officials in manipulating parliament. Four years ago HS2 supporters were saying “HS2 is in jeopardy” and “We are facing defeat”. MP’s would not let the government bomb Syria or sell off our woodlands, but HS2 has come through with a big majority. But with senior industry figures saying some major projects should be allowed to fail and that the project that get’s built is not necessarily the right one, there is plenty of scope for the government to wake up as the horrific realities of HS2 become apparent as construction looms up.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on May 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    Please put this in your petitions and require an SEA to include the inequity of the current approach please.


  3. Posted by chriseaglen on May 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Lord Justice Ouseley said there is a legitimacy in objecting to plans for infrastructure. Lawyers often use Latin when they are not really sure what to say. You have a duty to save your way of life. Politicians are not doing so and have not done so for over a decade.


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