With apologies to all for posting so late!
The view from the chair – January 2021 (With abject apologies to all for posting so late!)
Our alien land
If your chosen permitted exercise in this time of lockdown is cycling, and you have taken to travelling our country lanes, you could not fail to notice the alien landscape that has been created by HS2 contractors alongside a number of them. Coventry Road, Rugby Road and, most affected of all, the Welsh Road have stretches where all of the hedgerows and trees have been stripped from the roadsides, leaving a scene of devastation. Even worse is the desolation that has been caused behind some of the Heras fencing that has erected around HS2 worksites: South Cubbington Wood, for example, is now virtually denuded of vegetation and woodland soil in a wide strip where a cutting for HS2 will be excavated.
This destruction has been carried out by the ‘enabling works’ contractors, tasked with preparing the ground for the main civil contractors to begin the actual work of constructing HS2. So what we have witnessed is just the overture, and we have yet to experience how things will be when the real show starts.
Some indication of what we will be in for has been offered by HS2 Ltd’s own drone video of the north tunnel portal that has been constructed near Bascote Heath. At this site main civil works have begun in earnest in preparation for the delivery of the boring machines that will excavate the tunnels that will take HS2 under Long Itchington Wood.
A changing world
One of the doubts that was expressed throughout the 2010s was whether HS2 represents a good use of taxpayer’s money given that the business plan assumes that the growth in rail passenger numbers that has been seen in recent years will be maintained to some extent into the future. The challenge to this assumption was made in the light of indications that we were on the brink of a technological revolution that would radically change the world of work, with more work from home and fewer face-to-face meetings. It has to be admitted that there was little sign of this trend having much impact during the 2010s, but then along came Covid-19 and the effect on rail travel was startling, with passenger levels on long-distance routes down by at least two-thirds for much of the nine months from March 2020.
Of course we can expect numbers to come back up once normality is restored, but it seems unlikely that pre Covid-19 trends will be seen again, as the experiment in virtual work that has been forced upon us appears to have been largely a success. If this proves to be a correct prediction then the business case for HS2 will be shot to pieces. Significantly, despite us being almost a year into the pandemic, HS2 Ltd has not made any adjustments to its published business plan calculations to take account of any the Covid-19 effect on future trends: presumably this is not information that they are in any hurry to make public.
Notwithstanding potential deficits on the revenue side of the business plan, and capital cost overruns that have been divulged (and possibly those that haven’t been or are just unknown at this stage), it has become extremely questionable whether this country can afford HS2 given a Government borrowing requirement having a ratio to income that is unprecedented: surely any customer approaching his bank manager with a proposal to borrow on such terms would be shown the door without ceremony.
Whilst I still believe that it would be prudent to cancel the entire HS2 project, I am firmly of the opinion that the window of opportunity for this to happen on the London-West Midlands section has passed. However, rumours persist that the eastern leg will be ditched and I would not be surprised if the link to Manchester gets delayed and, possibly, kicked into the long grass. If this proves to be the case then the London-West Midlands section will become even more unjustifiable and certainly be very poor value for money.
The High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017 grants HS2 Ltd virtually unfettered powers and severely limits the opportunities for local authorities to intervene. A number of general legal constraints that are designed to protect communities from the impacts of inappropriate development are set aside by the Act and may be ignored by HS2 Ltd. While the purpose of such provision is to facilitate the demanding task of building the railway, it does assume that officers of HS2 Ltd will act reasonably. The risk is of course that they won’t, and experience has shown that the Company is all too willing to act the tyrant.
An example of what can happen is provided by the closure of the A452 near Southam for up to nine months, where HS2 Ltd unilaterally decided to ditch their original plan to build a temporary diversion that would enable the road to stay open. Warwickshire County Council, who would normally be required to approve all applications to close roads, have admitted that they were powerless to influence this decision.
As I mentioned in my previous ‘view’ the Cubbington Action Group against HS2 is still very much on HS2 Ltd’s case, and we are on the lookout for any breach of work standards, or Covid-19 regulations or any other unreasonable actions by HS2 contractors. We will use all avenues available to us to raise any complaints with HS2 Ltd and, where necessary, seek the support of politicians, local authorities, environmental charities and regulatory bodies to pursue those complaints. If you witness any action that may be cause for such complaint please let us know, preferably with full details and supporting evidence such as photographs, so that we can follow it up.