Karen Kay: joining HS2 petitioners at Westminster
PUBLISHED: 15:53 06 November 2015 | UPDATED: 15:53 06 November 2015
As a stream of petitioners continue to present their cases against HS2, Karen joins them in the historic Westminster corridors of power
Together with hundreds of other individuals and groups, I attended Parliament to present petitions to the High Speed Rail (HS2) Select Committee. The turnout from the Chilterns - whether small community bodies, or longstanding associations such as the Chiltern Society, the Forestry Commission, Chiltern District Council – was phenomenal and no mean feat given the task in hand.
For five years we have attempted to digest complex reports detailing the monstrosity that successive governments have been determined to bulldoze through the AONB. We’ve sifted through technical reports, engineering diagrams, learnt the specialist language of surveyors, rail construction, environmental studies and more.
Many of us have lived with a dark black cloud over our lives. Homes are blighted, our family’s futures ‘on hold’ as we sit out the lengthy process. Some have suffered more than others: we all know neighbours who have long since sold up, tired of the ‘unknown’ and keen to move on with their lives.
Some, especially older residents and those with young families, have found the process too burdensome to continue, however passionate their stance on the project. They’ve fallen by the wayside, without the mental or emotional energy or the time to carry on the exhausting fight.
For the past year, a cross-party group of MPs (some of whom lost their seats in the spring, meaning replacements had to be appointed) has heard the cases put by those against the line.
Swearing a legal oath and having doors opened by white-tied Parliamentary Messengers, it was, for many, an intimidating experience. Heading behind the scenes at Westminster, wandering the corridors of power lined with flocked wallpaper, dark wood paneling and leather-bound tomes, there is a sense you are part of history.
As an ordinary citizen, albeit one who pays taxes (and therefore the MPs’ salaries) and has paid £20 for the right to have your voice heard, preparing to sit in a court-like environment, with politicians who are qualified lawyers, surveyors and engineers, and a cast of many from HS2 Ltd, represented by a very adept – and doubtless, very highly remunerated – barrister, is way out of our comfort zone.
It was an insight into the machinations of government for those used to soundbites and snippets via news bulletins and daily papers; to experience firsthand the biting and somewhat patronising pedantry of Sir Peter Bottomley, or the impatient growls of a Select Committee member on hearing for the umpteenth time how disgruntled a petitioner is about property values plummeting.
It is, I grant, a tedious job for politicians, but their role is to make reasonable, considered recommendations to government and HS2 Ltd in light of the evidence. We had our day ‘in court’, spending hours listening to fellow petitioners: grumblers, ranters, eloquent orators, informed specialists, weary retirees who feel their twilight years in the Chilterns will be living hell and many more.
There was, I cannot deny, the fear that the process is futile; a sense that they’re going through the motions, ticking boxes so they can say the hybrid bill passed through parliament with due diligence.
We felt we’d made some progress with the July announcement of an extension of the original proposal beyond the initial tunnel portal in Mantles Wood, ancient woodland just outside Hyde Heath to just beyond South Heath. But the cynics amongst us can’t help but feel this was always part of the strategy; a card up their suited sleeves to look as if they’d conceded to public outcry.
Chancellor George Osborne has since been on a trade mission to China, and used it to publicly encourage businesses to bid for £11.8 billion worth of HS2 contracts. It’s also been suggested that the government is organising an ‘HS2 partnering day’ so Chinese companies can meet UK firms and establish potential partnerships. By nominating UK companies as joint contractors in bids, Chinese firms would be able to get around EU rules on tender procurement.
All this though HS2 does not yet have formal Parliamentary Approval. But the fight isn’t over. I don’t want to be the cynic, who feels we can’t make a difference, but believe that, if public opinion is strong enough, the path of policy can be changed.
It has been a long slog for all, some of whom have devoted inordinate amounts of energy, none more so than the incredible Hilary Wharf and Joe Rukin and their teams who have co-ordinated action groups up and down the line. Many more are still scheduled to air their grievances during Select Committee hearings over coming months.
We have to hope we can wear them down with reasoned argument, and so save our AONB for future generations. After all, this is, in the eyes of government, a legacy project, a plan designed to create a long-term transport scheme for the nation. What kind of legacy are we leaving if we, as custodians of such a beautiful pocket of countryside, can’t protect it for our children, and their children?
• Karen Kay: the battle continues to protect villages from HS2 - As Karen’s favourite ancient woodland receives a lifeline from the HS2 monster, the battle continues to protect the next villages and fields