Blue badge tour guide

What has become a familiar face to anti-HS2 campaigners turned up at a session of the HS2 Select Committee recently. The Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP, one-time true blue Cabinet minister but now the Government’s strongest Commons critic on HS2, addressed the Committee on what was billed as an “informal presentation on tunnels” (see footnote 1).

Whilst Mrs Gillan did review the options that have been proposed for additional tunnelling under her constituency, it emerged that her presentation was intended to be, in her words, “an informal briefing” for the Committee in advance of the Members’ imminent visit to her constituency. Mrs Gillan is the first MP to be afforded this facility; I expect that this is probably because she is the first to have asked. I note in this context that, following her appearance, the Committee’s programme has been modified to accommodate a similar appearance by her Rt Hon Friend David Lidington, Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, so perhaps she has started a belated trend.

The supplication to the Committee by the Member for Amersham was that her constituency merits special treatment by virtue of being within an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), and that the current plans “fail to protect and enhance” the AONB. In her view, “the right thing to do is to protect it to a greater degree”, and the way to do this is an “extended tunnel solution”. She is, of course, not the first by any means to request that a location be protected by additional tunnelling, and the signs appear to be that, so far, the Committee has been resolutely unmoved by such requests. However, it remains to be seen whether the letters “AONB” will prove to be the password that will spur the Committee to unlock the Government’s money box in the cause of better treatment for the environment.

Like me (see footnote 2), Mrs Gillan appears to be concerned that the Select Committee should address the sheer enormity of the impacts that HS2 would have on our environment. She cites the report that summarises the responses to the consultation on the Environmental Statement prepared for Parliament by Golder Associates as possibly contributing to this lack of appreciation, it being “just 112 pages long” whilst it “summarised 21,833 responses”. According to Mrs Gillan, “nearly 22,000 responses which have been distilled down don’t actually give you the full flavour of the objections on environmental grounds to the damage that is being done”.

Mrs Gillan reminded her three Conservative Party colleagues on the Select Committee of the pledges on the environment in the recently-published Conservative general election manifesto that she felt were “so many … that it became embarrassing”:

  • “We will build new roads and railways in a way that limits, as far as possible, their impact on the environment (page 55).
  • “We will … maintain national protections for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (page 54).
  • “We will put in place stronger protections for our natural landscapes (page 54).
  • “We will build new infrastructure in an environmentally-sensitive way.” (page 55)

Mrs Gillan didn’t let Mr Mearns off the hook either, reminding him of his party’s manifesto claim that Labour feels “passionately about our local landscapes, our open spaces and wildlife’ and pledge to “support the work of the Natural Capital Committee to protect and improve wildlife habitats and green spaces”.

Mrs Gillan told the Committee that the decisions that had been taken on routeing, leading to HS2 cutting through the AONB and her constituency rather than using a route that was “far less damaging environmentally”, such as the M1 corridor, were “rushed and driven by [operating] speed”. She said that she had been told that “it has to go through (sic) straight through your constituency because of speed”.

On the proposals that have been aired to “streamline” the process of hearing the large number of petitions deposited by her constituents, Mrs Gillan appeared to issue a challenge to the Committee, noting that “every petitioner has paid their £20”. She commented that “although it may be good to try and get those petitioners gathered together, they paid their £20 because they want to have their voice heard”.

On hearing this, Sir Peter Bottomley appeared to make a thinly veiled threat that the Committee, faced with a situation of having to hear a large number of petitioners, might extend its hours; he referred, semi-jokingly I think, that petitioners might “find it is 4.00 in the morning” that they are scheduled to be heard. Mrs Gillan retorted that, if this was the case, her constituents would “be here at 4.00 in the morning, I can assure you”.

Early signs that there could well be a confrontation on this point in the near future came from the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, who commented that the “main promoters [of the tunnel proposals]” would appear during “a relatively short set of hearings” which he thought would take place over the course of about two weeks. He expressed the opinion that this would mean that the Committee “will have heard all the key points that it needs to hear in order to form a pretty clear view as to whether something needs to be done to change [the HS2 design]” and that “there’s room for some optimism about how long the substance of these arguments is likely to take”. In other words, it is Mr Mould’s view is that there is no need to delay the Committee’s proceedings to allow all petitioners to have their say.

Mrs Gillan appeared to place undue reliance in her quest for a fair outcome from the Committee’s deliberations on two weapons in her armoury. The first of these was to promise that the Members would “have a good lunch” when they visited Amersham. The second was a letter that she had received from the Prime Minister that contained his assurance that “the government remains committed to listening to the views of all those affected by the scheme”. Well, I guess that words are cheap; is there anybody who genuinely believes that the Government is really listening to petitioners?

Footnotes:

  1. Mrs Gillan’s presentation was made at the start of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 17thJune 2015, and is recorded, together with a short subsequent discussion, in paragraphs 2 to 87 of the transcript. It occupies the first three-quarters of an hour of the video of the session. At the time of posting, the accompanying exhibits had not been e-published.
  2. See my blogs Unfinished business, part 2 (posted 26 May 2015) and Unfinished business, part 3 (posted 30 May 2015).

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

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: