A questionable point of view

James Strachan QC, Counsel for the Promoter, recently told the HS2 Select Committee (see footnote):

“I should also point out that the photo montage points, the photographic points, are ones that are generally agreed with the local authority before they are settled upon, and they are there to try to give an assessment from agreed viewpoints, as to how the railway would be seen.”

He was responding to evidence presented on behalf of the Hyde Heath Village Society and individual residents that had challenged the veracity of photomontages provided in the HS2 Phase 1 Environmental Statement (ES).

I feel that I am in a good position to comment upon Mr Strachan’s assertion, as I too had found cause to question the photomontages that had been produced for the ES. My query related, as you would expect, to the photomontages relevant to my area (CFA17) and I had pursued the point with HS2 Ltd during 2014 in preparation for the hearing of the petitions deposited by Cubbington Parish Council and Cubbington Action Group against HS2; this hearing took place in January 2015. My enquiries discovered a sequence of events that does not, I feel, fully accord with Mr Strachan’s view.

The reason that I got involved in this matter was that I wanted to show the Select Committee the impact that HS2 would have on the valley of the River Leam, probably the most sensitive landscape in my parish and an area which we saw fit to described in the CFA17 parish council and action group petitions as “sensitive to man-made intrusions and particularly vulnerable to the impacts that such intrusions may bring”. A HS2 Ltd photomontage of the view across the valley would have been ideal for this purpose, but when I checked the ES I found that, despite there being five viewpoints designated within the valley that had all been rated “significantly affected” there were no photomontages of the view.

I contacted HS2 Ltd querying this omission and requesting that I be furnished with a suitable photomontage and received the following rebuff in reply:

“… the viewpoints for [the photomontages] were decided in consultant (sic) with the local authority and at this stage we have no anticipation of providing more photo montages relating to the area you mention.”

It was (helpfully?) suggested that if I wanted to show the Select Committee a photomontage of the Leam valley then there was nothing stopping me creating my own.

In view of this important omission, and the ES only actually containing one photomontage for Cubbington and that showing nothing really, I was frankly incredulous that anyone in my local authority organisations would have agreed to such a meagre and unrepresentative selection of photomontages, so I decided to check.

Warwickshire is organised on the two-tier local authority model, so I contacted both the county and the district council.

The response from the district was that a check had unearthed no record of any contact with HS2 Ltd on this matter and that “it is highly unlikely that [the council] would have got involved with this aspect of the Environmental Statement”.

The county council were able to advise that there had been an exchange of letters on this subject, and I was able to obtain by FOI request a copy of the letter written by the Principle Ecologist of Warwickshire County Council; the addressee of this letter has been redacted, but I understand it to be the contractor working for HS2 Ltd on the photomontage work. This letter supports the view expressed to me by the council officer that I contacted that:

“We do not acknowledge this response as a full and proper consultation on the issue. In fact, our initial response points out that the detail provided was sparse and that we could not make a thorough assessment without further information being provided. We requested this, but it was not forthcoming”.

When I confronted HS2 Ltd with the letter and the council’s comments I obtained the following retraction:

“… I acknowledge that this was not a full consultation in the formal sense and [the council officer] is right to clarify that point. My use of the term ‘consultation’ was in the wider sense and perhaps ‘engagement’ may have been more appropriate so I apologise for any confusion this may have caused you.”

So perhaps I scored a minor victory, but I still didn’t get my photomontage of the Leam valley.

So where does that leave Mr Strachan’s claim that I began this posting with? Well certainly in Warwickshire it would appear that the degree of “engagement” was not sufficiently comprehensive to justify his assertion that the photographic points were “generally agreed with the local authority”.

Footnote: See paragraph 13 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee that was held on Tuesday 22nd September 2015.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is 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.

 

 

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