Today’s post was written by Cathryn Symons and was originally posted on The Daily (Maybe). It has been reproduced with permission.
High Speed Rail poses a dilemma for many Greens. We are in favour of public transport, but also have concerns with the proliferation of long-distance commuting because of the impact it can have on towns and communities which become dormitory places for the mighty metropolis.
We know that rail is one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly modes of transport, both for people and for freight, but are also concerned at the environmental damage and carbon emissions caused by large construction projects and aware that rail can be a major energy user. Many Greens are also concerned about the impact of high speed rail on local people and their environment.
The recent government proposals to build a high speed rail link from London to the North, starting with a dedicated London-Birmingham line called HS2, have led to strong debate in the party. It is a debate which was finally resolved in Cardiff last weekend, when conference agreed the Green Party does not support the HS2 project as it stands, and will only support high speed rail when it is clearly shown to be part of an overall policy which reduces demand for travel, CO2 emissions and energy use.
So far, much of the opposition to HS2 has come from local groups who are, quite rightly, concerned about local impacts. HS2 would pass through areas of outstanding natural beauty and disrupt many attractive areas in the Chilterns. In my local area of Camden, there is concern about the loss of social housing as Euston station is expanded, and the effect of tunnelling under Primrose Hill. These are issues which could be sorted out if the project’s backers wished to do so – routes can be changed, social housing replaced and even tunnelling work managed to be less disruptive. The fundamental issues of ever increasing demand for travel, high energy use and CO2 emissions are far harder to deal with.
The HS2 proposal will be, at best, neutral in terms of carbon emissions. The first London-Birmingham leg will not be available until 2026 by which time we will need to have severely reduced emissions, and for a major project like this to not contribute at all seems unreasonable. In fact, the project’s backers have barely even tried to establish the carbon budget for the project.
Perhaps the most severe impact of HS2 comes from its dependence on enormous levels of growth in domestic travel over the coming years. As with building roads, there seems to be a ‘predict and provide’ approach, which simply indulges unnecessary and expensive travel. Birmingham will become part of the London commuter belt, in the way that Peterborough, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Brighton already are. It is hard to see where that kind of growth will stop, or what use it is. Although claims are made that the line will reduce the North-South divide, and help to regenerate the North, there is no evidence given for this.
HS2 is not a sustainable project. It is possible that, in this small, densely populated country of ours, high speed rail will never really be sustainable. The onus should be on those promoting these projects to show that they benefit society and the environment.
So far, most of the resistance to HS2 has been local and risks being labelled ‘nimbyism’ and so dismissed out of hand. But there are wider issues here, which the Green Party has now acknowledged. Campaigning against this damaging, wasteful project needs to embrace both these wider environmental and social issues and the concerns of the Chilterns householder who finds a railway line planned for her living room.