“That’s politics,” said Dominic Grieve when I commiserated with him at one of his Friday ‘surgeries’ in Beaconsfield just after he’d lost his job as Attorney General.
Our MP seemed equally undismayed about leaving the Cabinet when he attended a recent meeting of campaigners and petitioners against the proposed high-speed train (HS2) in Denham Village. “For the first time in years, he said, “we had a proper summer holiday at our house in Brittany, with no interruptions from Westminster.”
A refreshed and ebullient Mr Grieve was invited to our meeting because we wanted to know whether his return to the back benches might prompt him to raise his public profile: to make his voice heard more often, and make his various worries about HS2 more widely known.
As the government’s chief legal advisor, the Attorney General must remain above the political fray, rarely speaking in the Commons on either government policy or constituency issues. For this reason, campaigners have long felt that our particular concerns about the flawed, ill-researched and environmentally destructive plans for HS2 through the Colne Valley have not been properly aired in Parliament, because our MP has been, in effect, gagged by the constraints of his sensitive Cabinet position. That is no longer the case, so can we expect to hear more from him through the petitioning phase and beyond?
Mr Grieve fielded our questions and concerns for more than an hour. First the bad news: he accepts the principle of HS2 being built because the Hybrid Bill was voted through the Commons with an overwhelming majority at its Second Reading. (Our MP didn’t vote one way or the other: he was fulfilling a speaking engagement in Newcastle that evening.) Mr Grieve is also convinced by the argument that Britain’s rapidly increasing population makes a new railway line imperative, to cope with the extra demand.
Despite well-expressed pleas from both Buckinghamshire County Council and Hillingdon Borough Council for a tunnel under the lakes of the Country Park, rather than a viaduct across them, Mr Grieve believes a tunnel is not a realistic option, because of the extra cost it would involve.
Dominic Grieve believes the present compensation arrangements for householders and businesses likely to suffer from the construction of HS2 are “inadequate”, and he is equally unimpressed by the amount of land that has been earmarked by the developers, making particular reference to the area around Shire Lane at the north-west extremity of the village, where a large construction camp and other dreadful eyesores are planned. He wants restrictions imposed on HS2’s proposed ‘land grab’.
Referring to the Colne Valley viaduct, Mr Grieve has been unimpressed by HS2 Ltd’s assurances about reducing the train noise across the lakes to tolerable levels, because the company has failed to produce any modelling to demonstrate how this would be done. Similarly, he feels HS2’s assurances that local water supplies will neither be affected nor contaminated have been unconvincing so far: “lacking in factual evidence”. Finally, he criticised the planners for failing to explain how this massive, energy-guzzling project will be powered, especially in view of the national power shortages that are predicted for the near future.
So, on noise, water and power, our MP has promised to press for more information. He also intends to investigate the inevitable increase in traffic congestion in and around Denham if the project goes ahead. This is already a daily trial for peak-period commuters, years before any HS2 spade is planted in our turf.
And there’s one more reason to be cheerful. On 16th October, Mr Grieve is meeting the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLaughlin, when he hopes to be told that the proposed Heathrow spur, branching off the mainline near Tilehouse Lane and burrowing southwards under the village, is finally to be kicked into the long grass.
The meeting covered a lot of ground, but there wasn’t time to discuss the likely impact on the Country Park, the indelible effects on the Colne Valley’s biodiversity, the loss of ancient woodland, the damage to long-established footpaths and the impact on local agriculture. These are concerns we will address at our next meeting with him. “One thing I’m certain about,” he said, “is that we all need to meet more often.”
And there came one last, impassioned question from a Denham Village petitioner. “Given that you didn’t vote at the Second Reading, could you tell us how you’re likely to vote at the Third Reading?” (This is expected to be in 2016, paving the way for the Act of Parliament that would make HS2 a reality.)
DG: “As things stand at the moment, I’m 99 per cent certain that I will vote against it.”
Dominic Grieve, this was music to our ears. Now that the gags have been removed, and you can say what you really think about HS2, we urge you to use your fine oratorical skills, excellent contacts and impressive track record in government to make a proper nuisance of yourself from the back benches.
Frank Partridge – Denham Against HS2