Unfinished business, part 5

This was originally posted on Peter’s blog here.

(… continued from Unfinished business, part 4, posted on 3 Jun 2015).

In this final part of this blog series about the HS2 Select Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2014-15 I want to mop up a few remaining odds and ends.

In one of the regular statements made by the Chairman (see footnote 1) petitioners were asked to note that the Committee had “heard the case” regarding the World Health Organisation (WHO) noise guidelines, and “do not need to hear it repeated”. This sentiment is reiterated in paragraph 95 of the report, which expresses the view that “it is not helpful for petitioners repeatedly to refer to World Health Organisation guidelines”.

I feel that the Committee is being unnecessarily restrictive and unreasonable here. Provided that petitioners do not take advantage of the situation to filibuster I feel that they should be permitted to make their case to the Committee in the best way that they can. If this involves the Committee in hearing some repetition of arguments then, in my view, that is a necessary price to pay in the interests of allowing petitioners a fair hearing.

HS2 Ltd provides petitioners with noise level predictions in decibels, but what residents want to know is how HS2 noise will impact upon their quality of life. It appears to me that HS2 Ltd has not been too helpful in making the connection between decibels and annoyance response or sleep disturbance. In these circumstances it seems perfectly natural for petitioners to seek impartial advice from the publications of an organisation that has the expertise to evaluate all of the evidence available on the health impacts of environmental noise, and what organisation is better qualified to do this than the WHO?

In the Foreword of the WHO’s Guidelines for Community Noise the purpose of the document is stated to be:

“… to consolidate actual scientific knowledge on the health impacts of community noise and to provide guidance to environmental health authorities and professional trying to protect people from the harmful effects of noise in non-industrial environments.”

The Foreword of the complementary volume Night Noise Guidelines for Europe contains a similar expression of purpose:

“Although these guidelines are neither standards nor legally binding criteria, they are designed to offer guidance in reducing the health impacts of night noise based on expert evaluation of scientific evidence in Europe.”

In view of these “mission statements” it is wholly appropriate that a petitioner should seek to use the WHO documentation to support a petition, and it is surely to be hoped that the Select Committee will also avail itself of the advice therein. Indeed, the Chairman did concede in his statement that his Committee “will consider noise as a route-wide issue at a later stage and the guidelines may be relevant then”. So the practical problem facing a petitioner called upon to be heard prior to the consideration of noise as a route-wide issue, and with only one opportunity to address the Committee on offer, is that the subsequent deliberations by the Committee may not address all of the points that the petitioner wishes to raise in connection with the WHO Guidelines.

By telling petitioners that it doesn’t want to hear evidence referring to the WHO Guidelines the Committee is depriving them of the chance to ensure that possibly essential information relating to their petitions is considered in evidence.

The paragraph that follows the reference to the WHO in the Committee’s report (paragraph 96) expresses the Committee’s concerns that “there is insufficient data on the health consequences of infrastructure construction and operation” for a project of the scale of HS2 and suggests that “a research project on health impacts would be welcome”. This brings to mind a statement made in evidence to the Committee by Dr Dan Mitchell, an engineer with considerable experience of major projects (see footnote 2):

“But one thing that really worried me as an engineer [is that we found out] thanks to an FoI there was no engineering research budget. At all. And yet we’re intending to run trains at high speeds across the whole country. And most of the engineers that I know, on the mechanical electrical engineering side, have highlighted problems. And problems which are very, very serious.”

Speaking as an engineer myself, I share Dr Mitchell’s concerns. HS2 is a huge project that is seeking to push the technology envelope well beyond standards in use in Europe today. It seems inconceivable that there does not appear to be a comprehensive programme of research in place to confirm that the technology is viable, and that the effects on health will be acceptable. There would appear to be many aspects of the project that require study, and the Select Committee has identified just one at present (see footnote 3).

There is one further disappointment in the Committee’s report that I should mention. The Committee confirms, in paragraph 100, that it is content “for the time being” with the somewhat inconvenient arrangements to view the “helicopter simulation video” offered by HS2 Ltd in a letterresponding to a request from three MPs that the simulation be made available on line (see footnote 4).

Finally, any petitioners who have yet to appear in front of the Committee might be well advised to read the guidance in paragraphs 140 to 144 of the report, although this section of the report appears to be chiefly aimed at protecting the sanity of the Members facing the months of tedium ahead. The report appears particularly concerned with the task of hearing “some 800 or so” petitions from the Chilterns; it has not escaped the Committee’s notice that “there is much common ground between these petitions”.

Footnotes:

  1. The statement was made at the start of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 12thJanuary 2015; paragraph 6 in the transcript refers.
  2. See paragraph 680 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday, 2ndMarch 2015.
  3. One particular area where I would like to see some theoretical and empirical work carried out to verify the assumptions made is the level and effective positions on the train of the sources of aerodynamic noise. Certainty in this area is an essential prerequisite for the proper design of noise mitigation.
  4. Just to rub salt into this particular wound, there is a HS2 webpage entitled Promotional material HS2 route flyover that purports to offer a “visualization of the proposed high speed rail connection between London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester”, but all this provides is access to two copies – yes two identical copies – of a short promotional video.

Important Note: The documents from which the quotes and extracts reproduced in this blog are taken include uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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