What a turn-up (and turn-out)!

A short while ago a postcard dropped through my letterbox, addressed to “The Occupier”, inviting me to “an event about HS2” to be held in Kenilworth. A similar day had been held in Southam last October (see footnote 1), but I had not attended that one as I had been advised that the event was intended only for residents in the Southam and Ladbroke areas, and that staff would not be briefed to answer questions from residents from further afield – this restriction came as something of a surprise, as the Southam event was the first to be held in Warwickshire for some time and my village of Cubbington is only six miles from Southam, as the crow flies.

information_event_invitationKenilworth is slightly closer to Cubbington, about four miles in a straight line, and I had received an invitation, so I assumed that the Kenilworth event would cater for Cubbington residents, an assumption that HS2 Ltd confirmed, eventually. I had heard that some visitors to the Southam event had expressed dissatisfaction with the answers, or lack of answers, that they had been given to their questions, a complaint that had also been made about previous HS2 information days, so it was more in hope than in expectation that I made plans to visit Kenilworth: after all, it is wrong to complain about a lack of engagement if you haven’t taken every opportunity to engage that is on offer.

I arrived at the venue about a half-hour after it had opened, and it was already busy. I was greeted warmly, just inside the door, by a representative of HS2 Ltd. I said that I wished to speak to an environmentalist and was advised to look for someone with a green stripe on their name badge – clever eh! I was told that, if I couldn’t find anybody to come back then the greeter would find someone for me. So this was a good start. It would be shallow and politically incorrect of me to admit that the experience was made all the more pleasant by the greeter being an attractive and charming young lady, so I won’t.

The main room of the venue was, as has been the case at previous events, full of display boards onto which information was pinned; mainly maps showing construction and as-built information. The room was fairly full of people, many engaged in conversation with quite a number of HS2 Ltd representatives. Eventually, after a couple of circuits, I located a man with a green line on his name badge and hovered by him, waiting for him to finish his chatting with another visitor.

I must say that the subsequent conversation was well worth the short wait. The HS2 Ltd man appeared to know the route through Cubbington, and its environmental impacts, well. I learnt that my fears that the damage to South Cubbington Wood might exceed the 2.27ha that has been declared are groundless, since the contractor will simply not have legal power to operate outside of the bill limits – I said that I’d still like to see a substantial perimeter fence though.

I also secured, for the first time, a clear explanation of the function of the twenty-metre strips either side of the retained cutting through the wood, designated as “for woodland management only”. It appears that it will not be necessary to fell all trees within these strips: it will only be required to remove diseased, or otherwise “unsafe”, vegetation.

I reminded him that Warwickshire County Council had told the Commons Select Committee that the plans to address the loss of woodland connectivity that HS2 will cause are inadequate, and enquired how discussions with the Council on this matter were going (see footnote 2). His reply indicated that there had been a failure so far to agree a mutually-acceptable solution to this issue, but that negotiations were still ongoing.

We talked about the logistics of provisioning a few million native saplings for compensatory and screening planting, and he advised me that a strategy was being worked on and, most importantly, assured me that all plantings will be propagated in the UK – we don’t want to import any nasty foreign diseases, do we. Since it is important that new planting is given time to establish before existing trees are ripped out, I asked about the timescales for the various planting that will be required around South Cubbington Wood. I also sought clarification of how long will be allowed to achieve successful propagation of the veteran pear tree before it had to be felled, as viable grafts are not easy to achieve, or guaranteed, with such old stock material. As regards timescales, he was unable to offer me any specifics and could only talk about general principles, so I was not entirely satisfied by his answers, but it was probably unreasonable to expect specific information at this stage of the project.

I asked him if he was prepared to talk about noise. He said that he could, up to a point. It appeared that we soon exceeded that point, because he passed me on to a specialist acoustician. I must say that the conversation with this second gentleman was a real delight. In contrast with previous attempts that I have had to engage with HS2 Ltd acoustics experts (see footnote 3), I found this to be a collaborative, rather than confrontational, exploration of the issues and my man certainly knew his stuff. The relaxed atmosphere engendered a fairly free-ranging discussion, but my chief concern was the admission in evidence before the Commons Select Committee that it was the LAMax night threshold for LOAEL that usually set the geographic limits for adverse effects from operational noise, rather than LAeq, despite which the noise contour maps published by HS2 Ltd have no LAMax information on them (see footnote 4).

I was told that HS2 Ltd recognised this shortcoming and moves were afoot to try and do something about it before petitioners came before the Lords Select Committee. I was told not to expect 60dB LAMax contours to appear on any revised maps though – reading between the lines, I got the impression that it was difficult for HS2 Ltd to map this data with its current tools (see footnote 5).

Whilst I was chatting away, my wife Gillian was able to secure a set of new A3 size copies of our local construction and as-built maps on posh shiny paper. These appear to include all of the changes made by additional provisions.

I was so elated with actually being able to talk freely with a couple of representatives of the sworn enemy that, on the way out I responded to the request from a researcher – another attractive and charming young lady, but let that pass – to take part in an exit survey and gave the event a glowing report and much more generous scores than good sense would have dictated was prudent; shame on me, but I am easily wooed by a kind word or two.

When I finally left, after about an hour, there was a queue of people outside the venue waiting their turn to be allowed entry, but only being let in, one by one, as someone left. Goodness knows what it was like in the evening when people were coming in after work, and I would be surprised if HS2 Ltd had printed enough copies of the maps to go around.

My experience has left me wondering whether I was just lucky and found two HS2 Ltd representatives who were good guys and wanted to help all they could, or whether I was witnessing a sea change in the way that residents are dealt with. Certainly, my suspicion in the past has been that the HS2 people at these events have been under strict instructions not to give anything away in the way of vital information. If these were and still remain the house rules, then my two guys were blatantly ignoring them. More likely, however, if that the recent spate of reports critical of HS2 Ltd public engagement has led to the, all too obvious, change in approach as a matter of policy (see footnote 6). If I am right, then it is a change that we should warmly welcome.

Footnotes:

  1. The Southam event took place on Tuesday 13thOctober 2015.
  2. See paragraphs 29 to 57 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 28thOctober 2014.
  3. See, for example, my comments about a fairly futile search for information by me in 2013 in my blog Being a real seeker after truth (posted 17 Jun 2013).
  4. For an example of this evidence see paragraphs 12 to 20 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 4thNovember 2015.
  5. However, in order to be consistent with the units utilised for the current maps it would be necessary to convert the LAMax threshold from a façade to a free-field value, requiring it to be expressed as 57dB (approximately).
  6. The first such report is Report on an investigation into complaints about High Speed Two Limited by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. This initiated a follow-up inquiry by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which then prompted HS2 Ltd to commission an independent review by a former Independent Police Complaints Commissioner.

PS: According to an article in the local Kenilworth Weekly News, almost 500 people attended the event. In the days following the event I have discussed the experience with a number of the residents of Cubbington who also attended. I think that it is fair to report that views are mixed, with some complaining that their questions weren’t answered and that staff did not appear to be particularly knowledgeable about the project, so perhaps my experience was not typical.

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: