Stanley Johnson is a former member of the European Parliament, and writes about environmental and other issues. He is currently a trustee of the Gorilla Organisation (www.gorillas.org) and an Ambassador for the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species.
I must declare an interest. HS2, on present plans, is going to pass less than ten metres from my front door. The same is true for around 20 other houses on the same road. HS2 engineers and officials came to our ‘neighbourhood meeting’ recently, and kindly explained that we would face more than a decade of disruption. Our road – Park Village East in the London Borough of Camden – would be closed for long periods (months or even years at a time), while bridges and retaining walls were demolished and rebuilt. Life would, in short, be utter hell.
I do not fault the HS2 personnel who came to that meeting. They were polite; they took our concerns seriously and tried to answer our uestions as best they could. But they had, frankly, an unenviable task.
They explained that due to engineering and other considerations (including cost), the new high speed lines could not be built under or over the existing railway lines as they run in and out of Euston station. There would have to be a land-grab on the south side of the existing tracks, viz. our side, to permit the construction of four ‘double-decked’ high-speed railway tracks.
As the meeting progressed, it became clear that Camden as a whole will face years of disruption, pollution, noise, dirt and inconvenience. Because our own street is very much in the HS2 ‘firing-line’, the impact may be particularly acute in Park Village East. I am not an engineer, but as far as I can understand, the HS2 tracks will be supported in part by ‘ground anchors’, thick iron wires clad in concrete which will pass actually under our houses to be buried deep in our back-gardens.
The HS2 representatives admitted that they were not actually sure what damage, if any, might be caused to the structure and fabric of the houses in the street. Yes, there might be settlement, but they had not so far fully researched the issue through boreholes etc. They more or less admitted that they had come up with the ‘land-grab’ and ‘dive-under’ scheme without working out some of the vital details, such as: would our houses actually collapse?
If the impact of HS2 on Park Village East worries the residents, it ought to worry the Government as well, since the Crown owns the properties (we are just lease-holders) and Her Majesty will presumably have to give her Royal Assent. Might she write in a few ‘conditions’ before she picks up her quill-pen? That would be fun!
I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that the residents of Park Village East deserve more consideration than other poor benighted Camden residents. Throughout Camden, hundreds of homes and business premises will be demolished. Yet in almost instances the compensation proposed is inadequate or, as in our case, non-existent.
What fascinates me is how the Government can imagine that its proposals as regards compensation are fair and proper?
I happened to meet Michael Heseltine down in Devon just after the New Year. No-one can accuse Lord Heseltine of not being dynamic and visionary. He is dynamism and vision personified. He is, he told me, a supporter of HS2, but he is also keen on the government “doing the right thing”.
“Look at the French” he said. “They built their high-speed network, their TGV system, with the support of the people, not over their bitter opposition. The French government bought up all affected properties, not just one or two, and they fully compensated the owners.”
I wish everyone thought like Lord Heseltine. The Government certainly doesn’t. Though some compensation is provided for outside the M25 for home-owners living with 120 metres of the HS2 rack, inside the M25 it is a different story.
Within the urban areas, unless your house is the subject of a compulsory purchase order because it is actually going to be or is likely to be knocked down, you can expect precisely nothing, even though – as in our case – you could just about leap from your front door onto the roof of a passing HS train.
Will the Government change its mind and loosen its purse-strings as far as compensation is concerned? Probably not. The costs of HS2 are already put at £50 billion (including rolling-stock). It is hard to see the government dipping into its pocket to keep Camden and its ‘huddled masses’ happy. HS2’s new boss, Sir David Higgins, is in any case committed to bear down on costs and he has a reputation to protect as well.
But maybe there is, after all, a ray of hope on the horizon. Sir David Higgins will already have realized that the six-mile stretch of between Oak Old Common and Euston is going to absorb more than a third of HS2’s budget, in other words over £16 billion. And that’s without taking into account the cost of proper compensation in urban areas such as Camden which, by some calculations, could add another £6 billion to the budget. Well, why not simply drop that stretch of line altogether? It is not such a radical proposition as it may sound.
Does HS2 need to come into Euston at all? Old Oak Common, in terms of connectivity, is just as strategically placed as Euston as a terminus if not more so (better access to Heathrow for example). Are businessmen heading for Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds or (in due course) even further north, going to be so terribly inconvenienced by having to head first for Old Oak Common rather than Euston? The economics of HS2 are dodgy at the best of times, as the recent reports of the Tax Payers Alliance, for example, make clear. And the Government has anyway switched its emphasis from ‘time-saved’ to ‘improvements in capacity.’
We do not yet know when the Second Reading of the HS2 Bill will take place. Most people imagine this will happen in late spring. Assuming the Bill is passed, notwithstanding the die-in-the-ditch efforts of some MPs most affected, like Frank Dobson, Michael Fabricant and Cheryl Gillan, a Special Committee of Parliament will be set up, since this is a hybrid bill.
Up and down the country, individuals and groups are even now preparing their ‘petitions’ to be presented to that Committee when the moment comes. ‘Petitioning’ Parliament seems to be a complicated process. When Parliament considered Cross-Rail, thousands of petitions were presented. Lawyers are involved in the process, of course, which makes it even more complicated (and expensive).
Without having the benefit of specific legal advice at this point, I would hope that a Parliamentary ‘petition’ could properly ask for measures of ‘mitigation’ to be included in the bill (better regulation of dust, noise, vibration etc. during construction, for example). And I would hope that the ‘petition’ could legitimately ask for better compensation, particularly as far as ‘blight’ is concerned.
I also hope that the lawyers might be able to find a way of including some more radical ideas. I understand that it is not apparently open to a petitioner, once the Second Reading has taken place, to question the very purpose of the HS2 Bill and to suggest that it be firmly put back into its box.
But might it be in order to suggest some rejigging of the route? Might a petition, for example, request the Committee to consider inviting the Government, quite simply, to drop the Old Oak Common to Euston section of HS2 altogether? It would save a ton of money and years of construction time, quite apart from sparing Camden and possibly other areas from decades of misery.
I am going to put this idea to the Mayor of London, as well as the Member for Orpington (head of No 10 Policy Unit), when I next see them. In interest of transparency, I thought I ought to write to Conservative Home first!