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A Victorian process for 21st century rail

A Victorian process for 21st century rail Photo © David Noton Photography/Alamy

After 160 days of hearings, more than 1600 petitioners, more than 15,000 exhibits, 13 site visits and 400 amendments, the final report on HS2 appeared with incredible speed.

Ralph Smyth blogThe committee of MPs tasked with investigating the precise route took just two weeks to announce their conclusions - by contrast it has taken ministers as many years to make some decisions.

Within hours of publication, the report was effectively buried as deeply as a new tunnel under London. The Department for Transport’s announcement the following day that Crossrail would be named the Elizabeth Line made sure that news desks had their train story for the day and moved quickly on.

Despite all the hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence and submissions, the High Speed Rail Bill Committee only recommended five changes. While it’s only right to remember there were many changes made and agreements negotiated during the hearings, many controversial aspects remained unchanged, indeed untested. One eminent engineer, who cut his teeth working on the Channel Tunnel, said it was ‘disappointing that the committee chose to rely on HS2 views without properly considering challenges to their assertions’.

To be fair to the committee, it was often stuck between a rock and a hard place. Parliament set the terms of the issues it could consider, ruling as out of bounds the concerns of many of the thousands who petitioned against the bill. To make matters worse, much of the detailed design work that sets out how HS2 will actually look and be built, such as the design of viaducts and overhead electrification, comes later.

The task of hearing thousands of people (known as petitioners) over almost two years was never going to be anything more than thankless. It was made worse by a petitioning process that has changed little since the days of Victorian railway barons and that has not even been properly reviewed since 1948. Whether a large local authority or a smallholder, the process was unwieldy as it was inefficient. CPRE waited a year and a half for a response to our petition but only received it hours before our final meeting with HS2 Ltd. The leader of the London Borough of Camden, for example, expressed her frustration about how four years of negotiations had strained its resources.

Nonetheless, the process clearly worked better for property owners protecting their private interests than those such as CPRE that wished to uphold the public interest; in our case, the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside. The size of the HS2 budget and an understandable desire not to increase the burden on the public purse were often quoted back to anyone trying to reduce the impact of HS2. Petitioners were expected to have prepared and costed up alternatives to the official scheme. Where the benefits of changes would primarily be for individuals’ property, that’s understandable. It’s inexcusable where public benefits of tranquillity, clean air and precious landscapes are under threat by HS2 officials refusing to comply with government policy. How could anyone think something drawn up in the 19th century to judge between rail tycoons and landed gentry could be fit to maximise economic and environmental benefits of new infrastructure in the 21st?

The Aarhus Convention on environmental justice recognises the public interest of environmental NGOs in promoting environmental protection. With this bill, this role was minimised, however. Because CPRE was, like other national NGOs, classed as a ‘route-wide’ petitioner, we were shunted to very near the end of the 160 days of hearings. Hopes that this might mean our arguments would be fresh in the committee’s minds as it drafted its report were dashed by the fact it had written much of its report as it went along. When we raised new arguments, committee members appeared unwilling to derail the timetable by rewriting their conclusions.

There are at least two more hybrid bills expected for HS2 and although this approach has been ruled out for a new runway, there remains a possibility it will be used for other major infrastructure projects. The committee’s report has trailed the idea of limiting the rights of those who cannot prove they are ‘principally affected’, making the process even more inaccessible to the public and NGOs. The likely appearance of another infrastructure bill in the Queen’s Speech would provide the perfect opportunity to for a more fundamental rethink. Rather than make more tweaks to the hybrid bill process, it’s time to bury it for good.

Find out more

Watch our presentation to the High Speed Rail Bill Committee

Download the transcript of the presentations to the High Speed Rail Bill Committee

Download our presentation to the High Speed Rail Bill Committee

View our petition against the High Speed Rail Bill 

View Ralph's profile


CPRE waited a year and a half for a response to our petition but only received it hours before our final meeting with HS2 Ltd.

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