DESPITE a general election that delivered a majority Conservative government which has building HS2 at the core of its economic strategy, campaigners against the project seem not to have given up. But they must be in some disarray about how to carry on as a result of the unexpected election outcome. Although many of the opponents in the Tory heartlands of the Chilterns and Warwickshire would never admit it, secretly they were hoping for a Labour-led coalition or minority government with Ed Balls as an Iron Chancellor at the Treasury pouring scorn on the plan.
Richard Houghton, spokesman for the HS2 Action Alliance, has bemoaned the post-election situation to the Daily Mail, saying: “If people are not directly on the line of HS2, they don’t seem to care. Unless the economy takes a complete nosedive, the new Government will push on with the project, although there must be some doubt about whether work will start as early as 2017.” But he went on: “We will continue our campaign of opposition. We still think this project is an enormous white elephant for which there is no business case, which is unaffordable and which will cut through areas of outstanding natural beauty.”
The Daily Mail also suggested that the HS2 Bill could face difficulties in the House of Lords, following a recent report by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee claiming the Government had not yet made a convincing case as to why HS2 was necessary.
But that report was published by an unrepresentative group of ageing, unelected Lords who had been hostile to the project right from the start of their inquiry immediately ahead of the general election in an attempt to influence voters. It was no coincidence that on the very day after their Lordships report was published and one day before parliament was dissolved for the general election, the Conservatives arch HS2 opponent, Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham & Amersham, secured a Westminster Hall debate to condemn the project but it gained the support of hardly a dozen MPs opposed to the project. Despite all this, voters in the general election, even in the Chilterns, returned a Conservative majority government and one firmly committed to HS2 for the first time in 23 years.
In Aylesbury Vale, they even voted out a sitting UKIP district councillor. Theres no doubting the strength of feeling against HS2, the Bucks Herald newspaper claimed, but it wasnt as bigger [sic] vote winner as the Greens and UKIP, who are both against the project, would have hoped.
David Liddington, re-elected as Aylesburys Tory MP, commented: “People who were voting for UKIP raised immigration more than anything else on the doorstep, more than HS2 actually.”
And one Independent councilor from Great Missenden said: “A Tory majority government will now ram HS2 through as quickly as possible, buoyed by the complete absence of any HS2 effect at constituency level in the south.”
Yet the small band of HS2 opponents seems not to want to give up. And they have been joined now by Jeremy Paxman, describing HS2 in a Financial Times article as a “grotesque waste of money”.
A SEA OF WHITE HAIR
Mr Paxman and many other opponents of HS2 remind me of the wonderful time about 35 years ago when British Rail allowed holders of its then new Senior Citizens Railcard to travel anywhere one weekend before Christmas for just 1. My old boss Sir Peter Parker, who was then BRs chairman, said that with hundreds and thousands of seniors taking advantage of the 1 offer the rail network that weekend became a sea of white hair. And I am pretty sure that if a convention of HS2 objectors were to be held now, that too would be largely a sea of white hair.
But HS2 is all about the future of building and strengthening the economy, of responding to the changing nature of 21st Century Britain including greatly increasing demand for passenger and freight rail services, of recognising the growth of cities and the need to link them quickly and efficiently. And, above all, of looking ahead and providing infrastructure for the long-term benefit of our children and their children.
A friend of mine, who has some doubts about HS2 and lives in an area that will be bisected by the line, says that what really matters is not his views but how his 17-year-old daughter thinks with her full life ahead of her. Being 17, she was not quite old enough to vote at the general election on 7 May but when she heard how many people in the locality had voted for UKIP, which had said it would scrap HS2, she commented: “Dad, do you realise we have more than 8,000 dickheads living around here?”
FAIRNESS AND JUSTIFICATION IS STILL REQUIRED
What is needed now is a substantial communications campaign by the new government, and by HS2 Ltd, to reaffirm the need for HS2. The project has been badly portrayed so far. Neither the capacity nor the economic issues have been properly and simply explained.
Nor the fact that the much criticised speed aspect is also directly linked to capacity. A simple example to explain this is the original Virgin Trains plan for the West Coast Main Line back in 1997.
Had the scheme to operate Pendolinos at 225km/h gone ahead, there would have been trains every 15 minutes between London and Birmingham and London and Manchester. But when the upgrade costs got out of hand and the top speed had to be reduced to 200km/h, the frequency also had to be reduced to every 20 minutes unless more trains were purchased, which could not then be justified. So an 11 per cent reduction in top speed resulted in planned capacity (and the productivity of the train fleet) on both the Birmingham and Manchester routes being cut by 33 per cent.
It is also time for the government to look again at the way it compensates (or, rather, in many cases, fails to adequately compensate) people along the route who are facing displacement or significant disturbance especially those who fear their properties will be devalued during the next decade before the line opens for traffic. Experience from HS1 in Kent suggests that once the line is built property values will return to normal levels. But in the meantime there is no doubt that many values will be depressed (not least because of all the scaremongering by those opposing the project). But this situation can have serious consequences, due to the length of time before the railway becomes operational, especially for those among the sea of white hair.
Two days before the general election Radio 5 Live broadcast a discussion with residents of Gilson, a small village that will be decimated by the new railway, near Coleshill in North Warwickshire (which was then one of the most marginal constituencies in the country). Gilson is a place where many people already would not choose to live, as it is sandwiched between the M6 Toll Link and M42 motorways and the A446 Coleshill bypass and during the outdoor discussion on Radio 5 the participants had to speak up over the constant roar of motorway traffic. The discussion focused on one villager who had sold his house to HS2 Ltd for what was claimed to be 100,000 below its true market value.
Why had this happened? The answer was simple: he was already in his 7os, and in poor health, so he was concerned that if he died first he would leave his widow with a worthless property and to be able to move house quickly for her benefit he settled for a price well below market value.
That someone should be forced into such circumstances is, to my mind, close to cruelty. But it is clear from evidence given already to the Select Committee examining petitions against the hybrid Bill for HS2 stage 1 that there are other people facing similar dilemmas.
Under the present blight law, owners of nearby properties can apply for compensation for any resulting devaluation one year after projects are completed. But that means those affected by HS2, even if it goes to schedule, will not be able to make a claim until the end of 2027 or into 2028 by which time many among the present sea of white hair property owners may no longer still be alive. And while they continue to live, they will be unable to move because of lack of buyers and/or reduced values offered for their homes.
Some of these cases involve farmers and have identified another nonsense plans to build an alternative farmhouse a little way from the HS2 route have met with refusal by some local authorities because new development is not allowed in the green belt!
What these people need now (and are justified to receive, in my view) is proper concern and adequate compensation so that they can move to alternative and as near-equivalent homes as possible not to be mucked about by remote, unsympathetic civil servants interpreting the law and thinking they have done the taxpayer a good deal by, for example, saving 100,000 on the settlement with the resident who wanted to leave Gilson and protect the interests of his possible future widow.
If people affected by HS2 were to be shown rather more decency and humanity, much of the remaining opposition might well melt away.