I have a question for you. Imagine that you work in Birmingham. If HS2 was built, would this encourage you to buy a house in London and commute from there to your job in Birmingham? I think that the answer is probably a resounding “NO”. However swap the situation around, and the prospect of working in London and living in the countryside near Birmingham becomes much more attractive.
The proposed new HS2 station at “Birmingham Interchange” (or whatever it ends up being called) offers this prospect to a new army of high speed commuters for which thousands of new houses will need to be built. After all, the catchment area of this proposed station will be out of the sprawl of Birmingham, in pleasant countryside (assuming that your house is sufficient distance from the HS2 route), and the delights of the Capital will be only 38 high speed minutes away.
Unfortunately, the pleasant countryside in which you will want your brand new house to be built will probably lie within the green belt and not just any old green belt, but the strategically vital Meriden Gap. Strategically vital because it separates Coventry from Birmingham, and is all that stops the proud and historic City of Coventry having to be renamed “East Birmingham”.
The impacts that the construction of a “park and ride” HS2 station, and the associated industrial and housing development stimulus, will have upon an area where the integrity of the green belt has already been weakened by developments such as the National Exhibition Centre and the expansion of Birmingham Airport is a topic that I have long intended to be the subject of one of my blogs. However, what has really spurred me into action is the report (in Rail News) that in a speech given by the Technical Director of HS2 Ltd, Professor Andrew McNaughton, to the iRail Conference in March he predicted that:
“… the National Exhibition Centre area would become a new city, focused on crucial interchanges of railways and motorways … [and] … the airport alongside the NEC would be able to claim the title of ‘London Birmingham’, because it would be closer to central London in journey times than either Stansted or Gatwick.”
Now the prediction of a new city between Birmingham and Coventry did not particularly surprise me, as it seems a reasonable conclusion to draw, but the truthfulness of this admission did take me aback a little; after all the prospect of HS2 stimulating housing development is not, as far as I can see, envisaged in the Appraisal of Sustainability. Professor McNaughton’s revelation did however cause something of a commotion in the local and national press and even spawned a Commons question from Dan Byles MP (North Warwickshire).
The reaction of the Daily Telegraph is typical:
“… the development would effectively obliterate the open countryside east of Birmingham to create Britain’s longest continuous conurbation, stretching 40 miles from Coventry to the far side of Wolverhampton.”
It would appear from the answer given to Dan Byle’s Commons question by Greg Clark, Minister of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government (here) that Professor McNaughton may not have cleared his remarks with his political masters prior to making his revelations. The Minister cut the good professor adrift without a paddle, saying that the Government has “not made any assessment of the comments” and has never “made such a policy proposal”.
Dan Byles also wrote to Professor McNaughton, requesting clarification of his remarks. In his reply Professor McNaughton, emphasised that he had been speaking in an academic and personal capacity, and not on behalf of HS2 Ltd or the Government, and that he had been mis-reported (see here). Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate a transcript of the iRail proceedings, and so am unable to form an opinion on to what degree Professor McNaughton’s remarks may have been mis-reported.
Personally, I think that Professor McNaughton got it about right and that HS2 represents a very severe threat to the Meriden Gap green belt.
The moral of this skirmish appears to be:
If you want a frank assessment ask an engineer; if you don’t, ask a politician.
PS: An excellent review of the status of green belts in the West Midlands was published by CPRE West Midlands in June 2007. What Price West Midlands Green Belts? may be downloaded here.