Today’s Times carries a story that CPRE is reconsidering its support for high speed rail. This is true, though if we do change our line it will be a board decision.
CPRE’s conditional support for HS2 has been unpopular with many members – see some of the comments on my previous two blogs on the subject – but that is not why we are having second thoughts. The reason is that it is increasingly hard to see HS2 as any sort of green project. I continue to think that HS2’s long-term benefits to the countryside and the wider environment could outweigh the harm it will inevitably cause, but it is doubtful whether the Government believes this, or cares.
CPRE nationally has supported a new north-south high speed lines for a number of reasons. We were attracted to the idea that it could, in George Osborne’s words, ‘redraw the economic geography’ of the country, connecting northern and midlands cities and providing an alternative to over-development in the wider south east. We hoped that HS2 would an exemplar – with outstanding design, beautiful viaducts, and plenty of tunnelling to avoid the destruction of homes or excessive damage to beautiful countryside.
And we saw it as an environmental project, as it was billed from the start. The Government promised to make rail the long distance travel mode of choice. HS2 was an alternative to new roads and runways, and had the potential to revive rural railways by relieving pressure on existing lines. It would also, to quote Theresa Villiers as Shadow Transport Secretary, “give a vitally important boost to our efforts to protect future generations from catastrophic climate change”. (That was 2008 – the last time senior politicians spoke about ‘catastrophic climate change at a Conservative Party Conference?).
We have been disappointed on many things. HS2 still has the potential to aid regeneration, but parkway stations in the Green Belt outside Birmingham and Manchester certainly don’t help. And apparent support for new towns in Kent and Buckinghamshire hardly suggest a strong will to redraw the country’s economic geography. As for design and mitigation, we have heard little progress on the design panel announced by Patrick McLoughlin in his CPRE lecture in November 2012. And the increasing focus on building the cheapest railway possible (a triumph of the anti-HS2 campaigners, though one they may end up regretting) reduces the chance of more tunnelling and increases the likelihood that we will see ‘Tesco Value Viaducts’ rather than things of beauty to be celebrated in years to come.
But above all, HS2 is no longer fits into a green narrative. The Government (or the Conservative part of it) seems increasingly committed to a third runway at Heathrow and is launching the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s. So it seems we are to have HS2 and new roads and runways. That was never part of the deal. It is not clear what this does for the business case for HS2 – there are only so many passengers – but it blows a hole in the environmental case.
I still hope the Government can make a compelling case for HS2. But that will mean:
- controlling its enthusiasm for new roads and runways;
- committing to exemplary design for a railway that will shape parts of England’s countryside for generations;
- being clear about its role in regenerating the north and relieving pressure on the south.
I will be speaking at the Royal Town Planning Institute’s ‘great debate’ on HS2 tomorrow evening. I look forward to an interesting discussion.