Wandering through passages and lobbies of intricately detailed oak, red leather upholstery and Victorian paintings, I am almost completely distracted from the purpose of my trip to the Palace of Westminster. I am on my way to observe Ralph Smyth – CPRE’s head of Infrastructure and Legal – make our case to the House of Lords High Speed Rail Bill Committee. It strikes me that the 400km/h railway of the future is at extreme odds with the historical surroundings; conversely, it is part of CPRE’s case to the committee that, through a commitment to high quality design, HS2 would not have to be at such odds with the English countryside and could in places seek to enhance it.
If HS2 is to signal the start of a once in a lifetime infrastructure construction programme, it is crucial that decisions made now set the right precedent and leave a legacy we will not regret. The appointment of an independent Design Panel made up of architects, sustainability experts and engineering specialists is an encouraging step in the right direction. However, there is still a need to ensure that the Design Panel’s advice is not just applied to the large stations and focal points, but leads to appropriate and environmentally sensitive solutions along the entire length of the project - sympathetic to the local character of rural landscape through which most of HS2 will be built. Negotiating with the HS2 team before our Lords appearance, we have already gained assurances that will guarantee transparency regarding the use of the Design Panel’s advice and recommendations. Significantly, where the curiously designated Nominated Undertakers – bodies responsible for constructing sections of HS2 – fail to follow the Design Panel’s recommendations, they will have to account for their actions publicly.
There is also progress to be made on how good design is valued. The Department for Transport’s Transport Appraisal Guidance, known as webTAG, sets out the process for understanding and valuing the impacts of transport investment such as the case of HS2. It currently lacks the means to value good design, however. Design that creates attractive places, improves quality of life, which then leads to further investment and regeneration. With a £56 billion price-tag, HS2 needs to show that it is maximising value by delivering multiple benefits in the public interest.
CPRE is pushing for new government guidance to assess the wider potential of design choices – such as improving perceptions of place or space and routes for nature. This does not necessarily mean added complexity; better design could come down to simple decisions such choosing to build a viaduct with arches and brick façade rather than angular concrete, or making the effort to remove the industrial look from noise barriers and fencing.
Fundamental in the pursuit of better design is the question: how will we look back at HS2 in 50 years’ time? With the same scorn given to the concrete blocks of the 1960s, or with appreciation, such as given to the Victorians’ pioneering rail infrastructure? In a landmark speech earlier this autumn, Minister for Transport, John Hayes CBE called for a return to valuing beauty in design, arguing that transport is the ‘perfect medium for leading the way to the public realm of the beautiful’. HS2 needs to be seen as an opportunity to catalyse a more aesthetically demanding future, in which we strive to enhance our rural and urban landscapes, rather than detract from them.