News: Growing opposition to new high speed rail proposal nationwide

By Rich Hook

An artist's impression of a HS2 train (HS2 Ltd.)

Proposals for a new high-speed rail network are threatening to create a Parliamentary storm, with one former government special advisor predicting a bigger backlash than the one against Brighton’s Falmer Stadium.

Former Labour SA, Paul Richards, advised then-Deputy PM John Prescott to approve plans for Brighton and Hove Albion’s new stadium, only to see it blocked for 13 years by Lewes District Council and other local Parliamentary opposition.

A small group of MPs wouldn’t normally influence government decisions, but Mr. Richards, said: “Backbenchers can put considerable pressure on ministers in this scenario, given the inherent instability of Coalition government.”

Now, a group of high-profile Conservative backbenchers including Attorney General Dominic Grieve, Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, and Government whip Jeremy Wright have all said they will vote against the High Speed Two Bill.

They would even defy a three-line whip regardless of the likely consequence of party expulsion. The backlash has already begun, with Chiltern Conservative associations and Buckinghamshire-based donors withholding funds of £100,000.

Video link: Flypast of route (BCC)

Recent Government u-turns on the forestry sell-off and NHS reforms, show the increased power of protests and this extends to local government.

The bill has also gained significant opposition outside the Government, with the Green Party agreeing to back the 13 District and County Councils along the HS2 route who have launched opposition campaign, 51m.

Green Party leader, and Brighton MP,  Caroline Lucas said: “The economic case is unsound. The claims about reducing CO2 emissions are questionable and the huge damage caused to local communities and their environment would be unsustainable.”

Yet there is clear support for the bill elsewhere, Levenshulme councillor Keith Whitmore said:

“A new high-speed line, without the West Coast disruptions, is essential to free up capacity while easing overcrowding.”

All three major parties believe a new high-speed network is needed to transform the nation’s 100 year-old rail infrastructure.

Labour established High Speed Two Limited in January 2009 to consider a new route, initially from London to Birmingham, and ultimately, Scotland.

After the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition included high-speed rail in their Programme for Government, transport secretary, Philip Hammond, said: “Our proposals provide an unprecedented increase in capacity, reliability improvements and slashed journey times. We’ve come to depend on rail infrastructure and now it’s the turn of our generation to leave a legacy.”

But because of widespread opposition, Mr. Hammond has created an additional public consultation stage despite a HS2 White Paper being submitted. A white paper normally indicates a bill is ready for the House of Commons.

This legislation is different as it’s a hybrid bill. Hybrid bills have characteristics of both public and private Bills, as they’re of national interest (public) but with predominately local impacts (private).

Mr. Hammond has accepted that HS2’s impacts are wider-reaching than the white paper acknowledged and has organised a series of roadshows from February 28-July 29, allowing any member of the public to analyse proposals and provide feedback.

Route changes have taken place, including links to Heathrow and HS1 along with ‘green’ tunnels to reduce noise/visual impacts.

Nonetheless, HS2’s future will be decided on three key levels: economic; strategic; and environmental.

HS2 Ltd calculate the cost:benefit ratio as 2.6: for every £1 spent on construction, £2.60 of benefit will be experienced across the country.

They believe business and transport benefits will amount to £44b, and Mr. Hammond said: “Britain’s economic map would be redrawn, with jobs created, prosperity spread and business competitiveness transformed.”

HS2 Action Alliance suggest the benefits will be much lower as they are only compared against the current rail network, with the possibility of line upgrades and flexible working on trains completely ignored by HS2 Ltd.

Economist, John Savin, of Wendover HS2, said:

“The hollow reality of HS2’s business case is hidden behind spurious certainties and obscure numbers.”

Regardless of wider benefits, HS2 is needed to solve major overcrowding problems, total journey numbers have more than doubled in 15 years. The proposed route will offer 14 more trains from London every hour and reduce journey times (e.g. London-Manchester: current=2hrs08 vs. HS2=1hr13).

Opposition groups believe the better solution is Rail Package 2, an upgrade of existing lines. HS2AA said, “Hammond buried the best alternative by misrepresenting value for money and capacity.”

Yet engineer David Owen, of HS2 consultants, Arup, believes recent redevelopment of West Coast main line was ineffective and they physically can’t run faster.

A key part of the case against is environmental, with Aylesbury MP, David Lidington, saying HS2 “would carve a swathe of destruction through the heart of an Area of Natural Beauty”. HS2 will also negatively impact on carbon emissions, noise pollution, structural landscape, and biodiversity.

Arup's sound demo (listen via link)

Arup admit environmental impacts are inevitable, but they’ve made mitigations, reducing homes affected by ‘high noise’ from 350-10. They are running sound demonstrations at roadshows, and David Owen said HS2 would “run smoother than TGV”

Mr. Lidington said: “This is going to be devastating. What possible benefit can justify the environmental harm? I feel the irreparable damage to our unique environment, in particular the Chilterns [AONB], is too high a price to pay.”

The Case For

The Case Against

From interview with Ian Jordan (HS2 Director)   From interview with Marion Clayton (BucksCC)
  • HS2 is a long-term investment in Britain’s transport infrastructure.
  • Any other option is just a stopgap.
  • Arguments against are very short-termist
  • Exhibitions improve understanding
  • Difficult to understand lead time if not in rail
  • Direct benefits will be felt for over 60 years

“This is a long-term consultation and we aim to get the best outcome for everyone.”

  • Classic local versus national debate
  • 70 action groups and 400,000 people against
  • HS2 will cost every constituency £51m.
  • Outrageous waste when local councils are making impossible decisions on lower budgets
  • No business case and no environmental case for HS2, and there are better solutions.

“We owe it to the nation to ensure this prosposal is stopped before becoming a Bill.”

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