England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

High Speed 2 rail infrastructure project


It’s not often that infrastructure planning and pop music charts overlap, but this unlikely marriage happened over Christmas 2011 when Oak Tree Lament by Dirty Mavis – a protest song opposing HS2 – nabbed top spot on HMV’s Christmas singles chart.

Justine Greening acknowledged the divisions HS2 has created by conceding that:

‘It is clear from the consultation that a national high speed rail network – High Speed 2 – generates strong feelings, both in favour and against the scheme.’

Even though the government has announced that HS2 will go ahead, those against continue to put forward their case vociferously. They have won some concessions regarding the impacts to the natural environment, such as an increase in the length of tunnels on the route. And the Secretary of State has pledged to “ work constructively with local authorities along the line of route to minimise the negative consequences of HS2 and maximise the benefits.”

On the economic value of HS2, the government’s own figures suggest that groups such as 51m may have a point. The government’s benefit to cost ratio for phase 1 of the route stands at £1.40 (that is, a return of £1.40 on every £1 invested). Mark Odell and Jim Pickard write in the Financial Times (£) that:

‘The economic case for [HS2] has weakened so much over the past year that the London to Birmingham section is now considered “low” value for money.’

They quote Stephen Glaister, a transport economist and executive director of the RAC Foundation, who says that “the Treasury wouldn’t normally get out of bed for that.”

The long lead time before HS2 comes to fruition (phase 1 won’t be complete until 2026) obviously makes concrete projections about the economic benefits more difficult. For example, some commentators have questioned the assumptions the government has made about the value to business of reducing journey times (HS2 will reduce the journey time between London and Birmingham to 49 minutes). Douglas McWilliam, Chief Executive of CEBR, an economics forecasting and analysis consultancy, warns that:

‘Modern rail, with the ability to plug in computers and increasing wifi and mobile connectivity, is much more like a substitute office than the rail of the time when the official estimates were made. And by the mid-2030s [sic] when HS2 comes in, high tech teleconferencing will make much business travel unnecessary.’

The government is promoting HS2 as being an important part of a low carbon future. The publication High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future, says that:

‘Many of the carbon emissions from both building and running a high speed line are covered by the European Union Emissions Trading System, meaning much of the carbon impact of HS2 will be offset by emissions reductions elsewhere.’

However, the actual reduction in carbon emissions that the project will achieve is difficult to quantify due to long-term uncertainties relating to the price of fuel and how that will influence people’s travel decisions, other policy measures that may be introduced such as a road tax, and how quickly the UK electricity supply is decarbonised. Greengauge 21, a research consultancy in favour of high speed rail, has produced an interim report on the carbon impacts of HS2, but will not publish a final report (with conclusions) until later in 2012.

A more pressing concern for local authorities along the route is the potential political fallout of the decision by the Coalition to press ahead with HS2. Only three of the districts that are members of 51m have elections pending in May 2012. But the impact on the ruling Conservatives in Cherwell and Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Liberal Democrats in Three Rivers, may be significant if voters choose to punish the national Coalition via local elections.

The headline decision to proceed with HS2 has been taken, but there is still considerable planning that will be required at the local level, and local planning authorities have a key statutory role here. So far it is unclear how well planning for HS2 will knit into local planning processes for housing growth, transport and other infrastructure. Sir Peter Hall, a long-time supporter of high speed rail, cautions that:

‘Silo planning – where HS2 plans high-speed rail, NR plans other routes, and there is little co-ordination with land use planning, regeneration and park-and-ride provision – must at all costs be avoided.’

Finally, the timing of the announcement of such a large transport infrastructure project so close to the implementation of many of the provisions of the Localism Act from April this year is unfortunate to say the least. People are being encouraged to roll up their sleeves and participate in neighbourhood planning. But there will be a sense in the communities along the route who are opposed to HS2 that the big decisions that really affect local areas will continue to be made by others irrespective of whether they get involved or not in local planning processes. 

Local authority support for HS2

The following local authorities have publicly supported HS2 (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Leeds City  Council
  • Liverpool City Council
  • London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (the borough will host a station at Old Oak Common)
  • Manchester City Council
  • Newcastle City Council
  • Nottingham City Council
  • Sheffield City Council

The Go-HS2 collaboration includes Birmingham City Council and a range of its partners.

Predominantly these councils’ support is based on the economic projections set out for HS2. For example, Go-HS2argues that HS2 will boost the West Midland’s economy by £2.5 billion and create up to 2,000 operational and maintenance jobs.


Local authority opposition to HS2

The largest group of local authorities opposed to HS2 is 51m, a national campaign of 18 councils (the campaign is called 51m because each Parliamentary constituency would in theory have to pay £51 million towards the cost of HS2). Members are:

  • Aylesbury Vale District Council
  • Buckinghamshire County Council
  • Cherwell District Council
  • Chiltern District Council
  • Coventry City Council
  • Harborough District Council
  • Leicestershire County Council
  • Lichfield District Council
  • London Borough of Hillingdon
  • North Warwickshire Borough Council
  • Oxfordshire County Council
  • South Bucks District Council
  • South Northants District Council
  • Stratford-on-Avon District Council
  • Three Rivers District Council
  • Warwick District Council
  • Warwickshire County Council
  • Wycombe District Council.

Broadly, the group consists of districts and counties through which HS2 will run. The obvious exception is Coventry City Council. In December 2010 it unanimously opposed HS2. At the time one councillor commented that “HS2 would relegate Coventry to little more than a backwater. We would end up with all of the disadvantages and none of benefits.” HS2 will not stop at Coventry.

The London Borough of Camden is not part of 51m but is also opposed to the route. The HS2 project proposes demolishing more than 200 homes within the council area to the north of Euston station.

While 51m argues that the economic case for HS2 has been overstated, many of the councils involved are opposed to the local environmental impact of the HS2 route (for a brief discussion of this see Comment below). As well as concerns about damage to the natural environment, 51m also cites possible impacts of increased noise and blight for people living alongside or near to the route, and consequent declines in value for business and residential properties.

The group has put forward its own proposals which focus on increasing the capacity of the existing rail network.  

On 8 February 2012, 51m wrote to the Secretary of State urging her to overturn the government’s decision to proceed with HS2. The group has threatened to challenge the decision through a judicial review. Councillor Ray Puddifoot, Vice-Chairman of 51m and Leader of the London Borough of Hillingdon, said that:

“The consultation process was unfair and inadequate in many respects… it is right that we challenge the Government’s decision to progress with this misguided scheme.”

This post is an exert from an LGiU member briefing by Andrew Ross. Briefings are accessible to all elected members and officers of LGiU member authorities. For more information on LGiU membership please contact our Partnerships Manager Chris Naylor on chris.naylor@lgiu.org.