As High Speed Two chairman Sir Brian Briscoe emphatically reminds us this week, the current consultation into the controversial £32bn scheme must not be seen as “a propaganda exercise”.
Because vital though this project may appear in terms of national economic interest, there are some very powerful arguments and very powerful people lined up in opposition.
With the project now well into the very challenging process of presenting plans to the communities directly affected by the new railway, engineers and planners must retain an open mind.
The local meetings and debates along the route and the assessment of the representations submitted must therefore be seen as the opportunity to listen and to learn.
The consultation must not be a hoop-jumping exercise but part of the democratic process that will ensure the right decisions are made and that the potential impacts are properly understood and mitigated.
“There are some very powerful arguments and very powerful people lined up in opposition”
I believe that it will be. That said, the macro arguments driving the HS2 proposals are compelling. The construction of a new high speed rail network across the UK is critical to securing the nation’s future economic and social prosperity. High Speed Two should be considered as simply the start.
The UK rail network is a victim of its own recent success. The huge growth in passenger numbers across the whole network, but particularly on the West Coast Main Line, means that overcrowding has already reached unacceptable levels.
Speed is important but if the UK is serious about driving economic growth we must make the connections between our major cities such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh much better.
High Speed Two has, of course, found support from all three major political parties. This is a rare state of affairs and surely indicates that in principle at least, this new piece of infrastructure is a sound investment for the nation.
And while £32bn is indeed a large amount of money for a nation racked with debt and facing unprecedented public spending cuts, the investment in fact equates to only around £2bn a year from 2017 − by which time the economy should be in better nick.
But for all this undeniable national interest, professional engineers must not overlook the very real impact that this scheme will have on individuals and communities along the route. We must learn from their experience and from the experience of past infrastructure planning processes.
Failure to do so will let these people down, let democracy down and could even end up derailing this vital piece of infrastructure.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor