This week, in what will be sure to be a massive boost to communities petitioning for less invasive designs of HS2, we have seen a remarkable turnaround from HS2 Ltd, as after four and a half years of asking, communities have won in their fight to get HS2 tunnelled under the A38 dual carriageway, and the West Coast Mainline near Lichfield, instead of going over it.
While the actual section of tunnel won’t be particularly long, the design change would have massive impacts on surrounding areas, as the massive viaduct which was proposed on both sides to make sure HS2 was high enough to cross both of those transport corridors along with another railway line will now not be needed. Also removed are two crossings over the Trent and Mersey Canal. How much this will cost is anyones guess.
In March 2010, the original proposals for HS2 were awash with similar viaducts, some of which were in place were in place to cross over similar significant infrastructure and rivers, whilst some seemed to serve no purpose except keeping the line flat and minimalizing the amount of spoil which would otherwise be generated. In September of that year, in what was seen as a knee-jerk reaction to quieten local opposition to the project, the vast majority of these viaducts were scrapped. However, this created a new question for HS2 Ltd, what to do with the millions of tons of spoil which would now be generated. This question has still not been satisfactorily answered.
The A38 viaduct remained in the designs, and in 2012 when action groups submitted mitigation proposals which included a tunnel, HS2 Ltd actually admitted that replacing the viaduct with a tunnel was their ‘preferred option’, but still would not commit to doing it. Even a fortnight ago when the HS2 Hybrid Bill Committee was touring the area on site visits, there was no sign of this about-turn from HS2 Ltd, as they seemed adamant that the viaduct should remain. However, the point that at stop after stop in the area, residents and community groups were all complaining about the knock-on effects of decision to go over instead of under the A38, will not have been lost on the committee.
Petitioners in the affected areas who had been due to appear before the committee this month are being contacted to see if they still want to appear as scheduled, or if they intend to defer until after the new design has been fully published, and resubmit petitions when these ‘additional provisions’ are announced.
There is of course another issue which may affect petitions from Staffordshire due to be heard this month, and that is the announcement, also believed to be happening this month, from Sir David Higgins about including Crewe in Phase 1 of HS2. Ever since he first brought up the idea, there has been speculation about whether the proposed link from Handsacre to the West Coast Mainline would go ahead. If HS2 were due to join that line at Crewe, and Crewe were to be built as part of Phase 1, it would seem that the currently proposed link at Handsacre would be a complete waste of time, money and effort. Unfortunately, our current best guess is that Higgins would make his announcement, whatever that would be, after petitions concerning the Handsacre link are currently scheduled for.
Regarding the new tunnel though, the big question now is: Why the sudden change of heart from HS2 Ltd? Is it because they have got a feel that the committee of MPs would rule in favour of a tunnel? Or is it because they have only just realised how many petitions could be cut out of the process, or at least watered down, by agreeing to this change? Quite simply, did they jump, or were they pushed?
While both possibilities are equally plausible, it was noticeable on the site visit a fortnight ago, that the further north the tour went, the more instances there had been of HS2 Ltd engaging in last-minute to avoid petitions being heard. The big difference is that all of those negotiations did not involve changing the design of HS2 in any way, but were more focussed on other solutions, such as compensation for loss of land by buying replacement land.
Now that there has actually been a change in the design of HS2, communities all the way down the route will be feeling that it is all to play for.