HS2 – David Cameron’s Tea Party moment?

So HS2 has passed its next hurdle.   Having walked the whole route last summer my first thoughts were for those places which I had found to be most affected by the line.  For those people who until a couple of years ago had imagined that peace and tranquillity was theirs for ever.

I know the big strategic issue – whether we need HS2 or not – is more important really – but when you’re on foot in the middle of the countryside it doesn’t feel like it is.

Anyone who knows much about economic forecasts and transport modelling will say (in private at least) that making a prediction now for 2026, the year the line will open, is – how shall I put it – stretching the boundaries of reliability.  So the pros and the antis can argue about it until the cows of Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire come home but ultimately a political decision was going to have to be made.

And this was always HS2’s big advantage.  The economic, transport and financial case is frankly no better (indeed arguably worse) than that for the Heathrow third runway.  The climate change case will only be better if we can decarbonise electricity generation.  And with the current government target being 15% generation by renewables by 2020 that is some way off.

But of course what HS2 does have is all party support, and no inconvenient manifesto commitments to block it.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the government is sticking with it.  This hasn’t stopped some pretty vitriolic coverage in the press though.  Simon Jenkins in the Guardian described it as the greatest waste of public money after aircraft carriers.  And he kindly included a link to my blog HS2 the slow way – so he must know a thing or two.

All the people along the route that I spoke to last summer knew the case against HS2 backwards.  And they believed that case.  When the line has only negative effects for you, you want to believe the case against.  And I’m sure this week’s decision hasn’t altered their views at all.  In fact, looking back on it there was something of an incipient Tea Party mentality out there (the Republican version, rather than Mad Hatter).  The more that politicians, big business and organised labour said it was a good thing and worth spending our taxes on, the more people were going to conclude it must be a bad thing.  In fact, given that we end up importing most stateside inventions – Big Macs, the iphone, gun crime – the HS2 announcement might easily become the Conservatives’ “Tea Party moment”.

The results of the consultation exercise were pretty clear – 2 to 1 against the principle and 90% against the route.  In response the Government has announced a plethora of minor changes to the line to try and deal with some of the worst impacts.  It hasn’t taken up my big idea – rerouting the whole thing along the M40 though.  Apparently this can’t be done because the motorway curves around too much, and HS2 has to go in a straight line if it is to reach 225 mph.  This is a real shame.  HS1 in Kent, which won the Royal Town Planning Institute Silver Jubilee Cup for 2008, runs along the M2 and M20 for most of its length, and compared with the white noise of the motorway you hardly notice the trains.

The conspiracy theorists amongst you will say that you never make your final offer at the beginning, and the minor changes announced this week are all just part of the negotiation.  But it was to these that I went first.  Would any of the 250 affected families at Euston be able to keep hold of their homes?  Had something been done about Edgcote House– the first place I walked past where I had felt really angry?  Would the parishioners of Twyford now have a better chance of hearing the sermon on a Sunday morning?  What future could the carp in the Colne Valley fishing lakes look forward to?  Most important of all – would I be able to sleep with the window open if I stayed at Hartwell House hotel in 2026?

Let’s have a look.

The plans for Euston are unchanged.  All 250 flats will still have to come down.  Not a very good start.

However the news from Edgcote is better.   This beautifully peaceful stately home and park in Northamptonshire played the home of Mr Bingley in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice 17 years ago, and the line was going to run on a viaduct through the park, within sight of the Grade 1 listed building.  This is where the biggest diversion is now proposed.  The line has been moved another 400m or so away from the house.  So a cheer for that.

At Twyford in north Buckinghamshire the line would pass as near to a village church as anywhere on the whole route.  Here the engineers have at least managed to move it up to 200 metres away from the village – enough to put some kind of earth bund in place.  Perhaps half a cheer for that.

Hartwell House proved more difficult – any further from the House would be nearer to Aylesbury -so the only change is a new cutting past the Walton Court area of the town.  Still I’m really pleased to see this – because the line would run really close to what is a former Council estate, which wasn’t able to get up a high profile Action Group unlike many wealthier places.  However the route past Hartwell House itself is unchanged, and the more sensitive hotel guests might still need to take some ear plugs as a precaution – so not really worth a cheer.

This leaves the carp.  I’m afraid their lake is still going to be drained, and I suppose they will have to take their chance in some kind of huge fish tank during construction.  So overall one and a half cheers out of three.

What I don’t know is how local people feel about these and the ten or so other amendments, including the headline announcement of a longer tunnel through the Chilterns.  This gives me the perfect excuse to walk one of my favourite parts of the route again.  So next week I’ll be heading up to Northamptonshire to revisit the limestone villages, Hook Norton beer, horse gallops and stately homes that I enjoyed so much in the summer, to see if the realignments, green tunnels and  deeper cuttings have made any difference to the opinions of residents in Greatworth, Edgcote, Chipping Walden and Aston le Walls.

Not that there was anything wrong with my walk through Birmingham of course – but the champagne will all have been drunk by now.

Wish me luck with the January weather, and if I spot anyone throwing tea overboard into the ornamental lake at Edgcote House I’ll be sure to let you know…

  • Andrew Pritchard

    I always enjoy Tim’s Blog, but I think it would be useful to get a perspective from the north and midlands on HS2 just to add a bit of balance – particularly from those cities that are being hardest hit from the contraction of public sector employment and the collapse of the property market (outside of London anyway). It might also be interesting to hear a bit more about how the community impact of major public sector investment in London (Olympics/CrossRail/Thameslink etc) is being handled.

  • Angela Baines

    It has served the Government’s purpose to lend a deaf ear to the plight of economic activity outside the Core Cities during the HS2 debate. Sadly up here in the rural Midlands where we will have both phase 1 of HS2 and phase 2 (to Leeds – our councils have little doubt), the political and business sector concensus is that we will lose out. All the pain and no gain.

    Many SME businesses will be bulldozed to make way for the line. Not all can be relocated. Those that can re-locate face years of uncertainty (stifling growth) and who knows where they will move to – those jobs may well not stay in our area? Although relatively small these are growing private sector businesses creating real jobs -something that the Government once wanted to nurture.

    Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber and Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce are sceptical about the wisdom of investing so much into a scheme which many believe has such limited benefit.