Heroes – just for one day

As a parish councillor and action group chairman I feel obliged to take every opportunity that I can to plead for the impacts of the construction and operation of HS2 on my community and locality to be reduced to the absolute minimum. As such, after nearly five years of having no results whatsoever from “engaging” with HS2, I regard the public hearings being held by the HS2 Select Committee as a welcome opportunity to set out my stall before a group who will, I believe, be prepared to listen to what I have to say. The considerable time and effort involved in preparing for an appearance in Committee Room 5 is something that I consider as within my job description, and the pressures of giving evidence “on the record” to a committee of Members of Parliament something that the experiences of recent years have conditioned me to be able to bear, hopefully.

However, I feel humbled by the many “ordinary” residents who are not prepared to buckle under the HS2 Ltd leviathan, and who have gone to the not inconsiderable trouble of submitting a petition, have paid twenty quid and are then willing to prepare for and turn up for their hearing, plus pay all of the associated costs of travelling to London. In this blog I wish to salute a small handful of individuals who have appeared so far and have particularly caught my eye, but my purpose is to take my hat off to all of these “heroes for a day” (see footnote 1).

My first example of steadfastness is one that I was present in Committee Room 5 to witness; it is the appearance of two ladies from Balsall Common, a village in the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, a few kilometres south of the site of the proposed Birmingham Interchange station (see footnote 2). The two ladies, Christina O’Sullivan and Christine Philps had each submitted their own petitions, 0816 and 0815 respectively, but had, sensibly, combined resources to make a presentation to the Committee.

At the start of the presentation Ms O’Sullivan proclaimed the pair’s manifesto:

“We are going to talk to you about how HS2 affects us in our historic, 11th century parish of Berkswell. We are here to ask you to reconsider a tunnel for Berkswell, to widen the scope of compensation to residents in Beverley Close and to implore you not to destroy our Greenway for our community.”

In what Robert Syms MP, Chairman of the Select Committee, described as a “tremendous presentation”, Ms O’Sullivan spoke for about twenty minutes followed by Ms Philps for a quarter of an hour. Both ladies spoke lucidly and with conviction.

Ms O’Sullivan talked about the noise and visual impacts of HS2, the effects that construction traffic would have on her community, the fear that the Greenway – often referred to as a “linear country park” – would be damaged, and how much better things would be if a bored tunnel were to be employed. Ms Philps concentrated on the impacts upon what she called “the people and the welfare of our lively community”.

Now, inevitably, the presentations and accompanying evidence slides were not faultless. There were far too many words on many slides, and it was probably not a good idea to include, verbatim, sections of the spoken presentation in the visual material; in my experience the audience tend to concentrate on reading this ahead of the speaker, rather than actually listening to what the speaker has to say. There was also a misunderstanding of the Rayleigh effect and a problem with the accuracy of a couple of the images used, which I will explain in my next posting. The reading of, in some cases very long, lists of clubs, societies and activities from the slides by Ms Philps was also a little tedious.

However, all in all, the ladies did an excellent job. I think that it is fair to assume that they were representing the fears of many of their fellow residents who, unlike them, had not been willing to go to the extent of petitioning and appearing in front of the Committee to express those fears; the ladies deserve to be congratulated.

My third hero, Brenda Murray, is also a resident of Berkswell. She lives in a “luxury apartment” within a conversion of the Grade II* listed 19th century Berkswell Hall, with 15th century origins. She told the Committee that her husband and her had purchased the property “15 years ago, because it’s a really special place to live” and that they “have to pay a premium to live in Berkswell Hall” but accepted this because they “also feel we are preserving the Hall for future generations”. She is, understandably, not too overjoyed at the prospect of sharing her, currently very pleasant surroundings, with the activities of a major construction project followed by the frequent passage of high-speed trains.

In her articulate presentation (see footnote 3) Mrs Murray made good use of extracts from the promoter’s response document, pointing out what she considered to be inconsistencies therein, and the Environmental Statement.

But what can you do if, unlike the three ladies that I have mentioned, you just do not feel capable of facing a committee of MPs? The obvious solution is to get someone else to speak for you. Maurice and Pauline Kite, of Kenilworth in Warwickshire and both in their seventies, opted to do this, and are particularly fortunate in that their daughter Melissa, who was their nominee, is a campaigning journalist who contributes articles to The Spectator and the Daily Mail. We are also able to get some insight into what the experience was like for Melissa and her parents because she has written an article on the subject for the former journal.

Looking surprisingly nervous for someone of her profession – and some of the background to her reaction to the experience is revealed in the article – Ms Kite explained why she was representing her parents (see footnote 4):

“I am speaking on behalf of my parents today because they are both perhaps older than they look, to their credit, and they find this incredibly stressful. In fact, it has been incredibly stressful for us all as a family and we talk of little else, as I am sure you can imagine. They both work full-time. They can’t retire because of the effects of HS2 on the value of their home and so they can’t really take all this on as well. So, I have been taking the lead to take a bit of weight off them.”

All that her parents were really seeking, it emerged, was to be treated with basic decency by those deciding compensation, so that they would be able to avoid financial hardship and risks to their health for the remainder of their lives.

In her article, Melissa Kite reflects on the petitioning process:

“I don’t know how anyone fights these battles. No. Let me put it another way: I know exactly how governments and big corporations wear people down so that objections to infrastructure projects by the poor helpless sods caught in the middle are seldom any problem for the guys at the top.”

I can’t help speculating on the flip side of Melissa Kite’s comment. Just suppose what the situation would be if every one of the thousands of people who are “directly or specially affected” by the HS2 proposals had exercised the right to petition and was planning to appear before the Select Committee. Surely, in such circumstances the hybrid Bill process would fall apart, faced with the sheer magnitude of the task of hearing the petitions of so many.

But, unfortunately it is Ms Kite’s version of events, not mine, that is the reality.

Footnotes:

  1. You may recognise my title as having been pinched from the lyrics of the 1977 David Bowie/Brian Eno song Heroes.
  2. The O’Sullivan/Philps hearing was held on the afternoon of Monday 1st December 2014 and begins at paragraph 216 in the transcript and at 14:47 in the video. It continues in the second session transcript and video.
  3. Mrs Murray’s hearing was held on the morning of Wednesday 3rd December 2014 and begins at paragraph 241 in the transcript and at 11:25 in the video. Her petition is 0179.
  4. Mr and Mrs Kite’s petition 1307 was heard on the morning of Wednesday 26th November 2014 and begins at paragraph 2 in the transcript and from the start of the video.

Important Note: The documents from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on December 20, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    It is the lack of outputs from the Select Committee that is a significant concern because of the way the Hybrid Bill was curtailed from changes.

    This is not an audition but sad losses from real people with no means from the Select Committee to address their grief and losses.

    A poor scheme and poor bill and poor process.

    As with VCs you just do what you can and currently the process is futile for the many and that is due to poor route planning and lack of strategic vision to maximise the now better known argued objective that were not part of the Route 3 phase 1 criteria.

    Reply

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