That’s it then, we’re off, part 1

Thanks to the excellent video streaming service offered by Parliament TV it has been possible to watch the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee as they have unfolded day by day. These videos have portrayed the mini-dramas that have been revealed, and allowed the technical arguments that have been made by petitioners and the Promoter to be appreciated, although it would have been much easier to follow these if some way had been found to allow viewers also to see the exhibits that are shown to the Committee and members of the public present in the committee room.

In order to be able to report to you on the important issues that have surfaced during these proceedings, I have kept a weather eye on the activities in Committee Room 5. Looking back, I don’t think that I have missed very much of the action, although I must confess that I have, on occasion, fast-forwarded whilst checking the transcript to make sure that I wasn’t overlooking anything of note; I bet that this is a facility that Members of the Committee would have liked to have been able to avail themselves of when being required to endure many a laboured and expansive presentation of evidence.

So I have watched many an hour of the soap opera of the public sessions of the HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee, and I feel that this entitles me to comment upon the adequacy and suitability of what I have witnessed. That the time is right for such an evaluation is obvious, since the Committee met in session for the last time on Monday 22nd February 2016 – to deliver a self-congratulatory valediction and expression of thanks to all concerned by the Chairman, on behalf of the Committee, and hear sentiments along the same lines from the Promoter’s Lead Counsel on his client’s behalf – and published its final report a few hours later.

It was obvious from the short statement made on behalf of the Promoter at the final session that the sponsors of the HS2 project, at least, are content with the outcome of the process, and I think that, on balance, the Promoter has every reason to be happy with the final report; some might think that he has got off very lightly. My own attitude to what I have seen has hardened over time: initially, although healthily sceptical, I was willing to place my trust in the process as the only recourse open to those harbouring issues with the proposals, but as the months rolled on it became blindingly obvious that the odds were heavily stacked against the petitioner.

The watershed, as far as I was concerned, came in October last year when, as I reported in my blog Standing at the end of the queue (posted 6 Nov 2015), the Chairman expressed reluctance to make any further recommendations that would require changes to the hybrid Bill on the grounds that “additional provisions and additional petitioning … could add years to the Bill” and that he “would prefer not to be here for more years”. Since October 2015, and possibly well before this, the Committee has had its eyes firmly on the finishing post, and I think that we are entitled to assume that the process became perfunctory rather than investigative. This state of affairs is particularly unfortunate since the Committee, at its own choice at the start of the proceedings, elected to hear what it termed “route-wide issues” at the very end of its deliberations, which put most of the consideration of the generic environmental impacts of HS2 into the last few months. This quirk of timetabling resulted, I fear, in some excellent expert evidence being presented to the Committee by major petitioners, at a stage when the Committee appeared to be very much inclined towards accepting the Promoter’s world view on the basis that to do otherwise would extend proceedings.

For evidence that my reading of the situation is correct, I need look no further than the Committee’s final report. Joe Rukin of Stop HS2 says that he is “incredibly disappointed” with this document (see footnote): I would share that view, except that my expectations were so low on that score that it was not really possible for the report to disappoint me.

It is true that the Committee has acted to instruct the Promoter to make changes to the hybrid Bill, by way of additional provisions (AP) and supplementary environmental statements (SES), and the following instances of this are identified in the Summary of the report:

  • A 2.6km extension to the Chilterns bored tunnel, achieved by AP4. Whilst this is a welcome reduction to the impacts on the Chilterns AONB, it still leaves approximately 40 per cent of the route through the AONB on the surface, including two viaducts each 500 metres long, with a height of 15 metres, joined by a massive embankment over 1km long.
  • A short southward tunnel extension and enhanced noise barrier protection to reduce noise effects at Wendover, as set out in SES4.
  • The addition of a custom haul road to alleviate some construction traffic problems in Hillingdon, achieved by AP4, and other construction and traffic management improvements, although the report concedes that “more progress is needed”.

In addition, two instances are cited where the Committee has directed the Promoter to make improvements to his proposals: these are the land required for the construction of the Washwood Heath maintenance depot, and the remodelling of Euston Station, where the Committee is seeking the achievement of a “coherent plan”. Although the Summary of the final report claims these last two as achievements, it is far from clear what has been achieved to date, in the way of cast-iron guarantees.

To the list of substantial changes in the final report we could consider adding the reworking of the HS2 crossing of the A38 near Streethay in Staffordshire, to take the railway under, rather than over, the road – a change that was accommodated in AP2. However, I believe that the Select Committee is right not to claim this as one of its instructed changes as the promoter virtually volunteered to make the modification before any petitioners from the affected area had been heard.

To this rather modest list of substantive changes to the hybrid Bill that the Select Committee is able to claim, it is also pointed out in the final report that the Committee has “intervened to encourage fairness, practical settlements, the giving of assurances, or better mitigation” and the Register of Undertakings and Assurances lists almost two thousand instances of such accommodations, although many of these will, of course, have been achieved without the direct intervention of the Select Committee.

So I think that I am justified in feeling that the final report testifies to a sad lack of reformist zeal on the part of the Select Committee and, more damning to my mind, gives a clear indication that the Committee has quit its task before it has adequately discharged its duties.

I will justify this latter claim in my next posting.

(To be continued …)

Footnote: See the Stop HS2 blog Campaigners “incredibly disappointed” by HS2 Committee’s final report.

 

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