First the bad news: the High-Speed Train (HS2) scarcely got a mention during the autumn round of party political conferences.
This was truly remarkable in a pre-election period when supporters are ordered to clap at virtually everything, just in case that particular soundbite gets chosen for the Ten O’Clock News.
When all three major parties agree with each other – I include the LibDems in this group, but probably not for long – HS2 is unlikely to be an election issue. Who wants a manifesto that looks just like the other guy’s?
But in my experience, when there’s virtual unanimity about something, it’s likely to end in tears. All three parties agreed that it was a very sensible idea to invade Iraq in 2003. Last year, they all decided against military intervention in Syria. How misguided both of these cosy arrangements seem now.
A fellow anti-HS2 campaigner, who attended the Conservative conference in Birmingham to hand out leaflets to the rank-and-file, reported that nearly all of them said “I support you, I’m against it”, but when they were asked to tell that to their leader they replied: “He doesn’t listen.”
Labour seem equally set in their ways, fearful of upsetting the powerful City Councils in the north, who see HS2 as a source of jobs, prosperity and a way of narrowing the north/south divide – even though any economist will tell you that if you develop a new transport link between two cities, the wealthier one will always benefit at the expense of the poorer. Why do our politicians persist in ignoring this fundamental truth?
HS2 may have slipped off the national news radar for the time being, but there are glimmers of hope. More than glimmers, actually, because the Scottish devolution referendum, combined with October's seismic by-election results in England last month, have shown just how quickly the political landscape can change. Suddenly, the devolving of power away from Westminster has pushed its way towards the top of the political agenda, while UKIP – a laughing stock five years ago – are certainly no laughing matter now.
In the same way that they’ve been forced to rethink Scotland and immigration, the government can be made to listen to the clamour of opposition to HS2 too. Wishful thinking? I think not.
Near Lichfield, Staffordshire, the proposed route of the not-so-high-speed-after-all train was to have crossed the busy A38, two existing railway lines and a lovely stretch of the Trent and Mersey canal - on a series of viaducts. The local action group, backed by their County Council and their (Conservative) MP, petitioned for deep cuttings instead of viaducts, to reduce the noise and visual impact on the surrounding countryside. HS2 Ltd kept insisting that it couldn’t be done ‘for technical reasons’.
So the Commons Select Committee, which is investigating HS2, arranged a site visit in Staffordshire to see what all the fuss was about. A local landowner got wind of their visit and heroically arranged to fly a noisy ‘drone’ – an unmanned aircraft - at the exact height of the proposed viaducts, to illustrate how HS2 would ruin the place. This ‘shock and awe’ tactic worked spectacularly. Within a week, Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin announced that the line would be re-routed under the A38, the railway lines and the canal. There would be no unsightly viaducts for Lichfield. See? They will listen, if our case is compelling enough.
Here in the Colne Valley, we face a similar problem to Lichfield’s, with the longest viaduct since the Victorians laid down the UK railway network planned for our Regional Park, with its lakes, activity centre, canal, marina, Nature Reserves and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Almost all of our local petitioners have urged the Select Committee to consider replacing the viaduct with a tunnel. HS2 Ltd maintain that it can’t be done ‘for technical reasons’. Does that sound familiar?
Lichfield has shown that it is possible to persuade the government and the railway planners to change their minds – as long as local opposition is passionate, well-researched and supported by a community that’s pulling in the same direction.
Unmanned aircraft might help too. Anyone got a spare drone kicking around their garage, which we could borrow for the Select Committee’s visit to Denham and Harefield in the New Year?
Frank Partridge – Denham Against HS2