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We have a way to go before we truly embrace local opinions

My comment and interview with High Speed Two Ltd chairman Sir Brian Briscoe in NCE last week certainly seems to have prompted some email and postal traffic on the rights and wrongs of constructing a new high speed rail network in the UK.

Mainly on the “wrongs” to be honest. The High Speed 2 (HS2) line is clearly not everyone’s (as opposed to not anyone’s) local or national cup of tea.

Which is understandable, of course, for a project of this magnitude. The whole point of the consultation about the route north of London to the Midlands is, after all, to get discussion going around the macro and micro issues of proposed development.

On HS2 both sides of the arguments have some way to go before a conclusive case is made.

Yet as Infrastructure Planning Commission chairman Sir Michael Pitt pointed out this week, the government’s move to enshrine localism in new planning legislation means that this kind of discussion is only going to increase in future.

Pitt is clear that while a transparent, efficient and effective planning regime is vital in encouraging investment for infrastructure projects. He is also clear that engaging local communities is core to the process.

“While it is wrong for government to force pet schemes on communities, it is equally wrong for nationally important projects to be thwarted by nimby issues”

“Consultation has to be genuine engagement with local communities and we will look for evidence that schemes have changed as a result,” he said.

It is fair to say that we all have some way to go before we truly embrace that sentiment. While it is wrong for government to force pet schemes on communities, it is equally wrong for nationally important projects to be thwarted by nimby issues.

That said, the key to delivering any new high speed rail network must also be for the industry to first prove that it can run the existing national railway efficiently. And as the McNulty report points out this week, there is some way to go.

Any “licence to grow” must be earned by the rail industry, it added, pointing out that if this Plan A failed, Plan B could conceivably see the uncomfortable sight of the UK’s national rail system shrinking.

From the civil engineer’s perspective, that is not an appetising prospect. Nor is it a recipe for economic success.

The onus is therefore now on us to first work with local communities to make the case for new infrastructure and then work across disciplines to deliver projects more efficiently. Done correctly we will enter a new era of unprecedented cooperation to create the infrastructure needed to deliver joined-up government policies.

Get it wrong and the nation will be forced to simply limp along with out of date infrastructure and be progressively left behind by the rest of the world.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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