An act of betrayal

From Peter’s blog An act of betrayal:

A letter appeared in the press last month that is critical of HS2 (see footnote 1). Nothing new in that, I hear you say, but this particular letter was signed by four eminent environmentalists (see footnote 2) and so attracted my attention. Whilst all of the authors of the epistle have previous form, in that they have all gone to print before to attack the project, the letter was unusual in that, for once, the project itself did not appear to be the main target that the antagonists had in their sights. True, the letter does refer to the “hugely expensive HS2 project” being “fundamentally flawed”, but the real venom is reserved for what the letter calls “so-called environmental groups”. The letter accuses four named organisations (see footnote 3) of having “assisted this extremely damaging environmental project at every stage” and adds:

“These groups have betrayed their members as the project will, without question, add to greenhouse gas emissions, seriously damage the countryside, destroy woodland and generate levels of noise greater than those set in World Health Organisation community noise standards.”

I have, in past blogs (see footnote 4), had occasion to criticise one of the organisations identified by the four environmentalists, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), on similar grounds, so I have considerable sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the letter. At the same time, I was keen not to smear the branch of that organisation that covers my own fair county with the same tar-laden brush: Warwickshire CPRE has a long-standing difference of opinion on HS2 with its National Headquarters organisation, and was keen to call attention to this split, before the ink on the letter was really dry, by posting the following message on its Facebook page:

“Whilst I believe the authors of the letter to the Telegraph this morning are correct in their assessment of HS2’s worth and in their condemnation of the certain NGOs, I would like to point out that CPRE Warwickshire has consistently opposed HS2: initially for the destruction that will be caused to the English countryside (something which WE strive to protect!), but latterly for reasons of lack of need and excessive cost.”

In my blog I’m trying to understand you (posted 16 Jun 2012), I attempted to make sense of a position where, despite what Warwickshire CPRE identifies as “the destruction that will be caused to the English countryside” by HS2, its umbrella organisation has signally failed to oppose the project and has even offered qualified support to the extent that a past Transport Secretary was able to “welcome” comments made by CPRE (see footnote 5). My conclusion in that June 2012 posting was basically that the redeeming feature that had saved HS2 from being rejected out of hand by the four NGOs was that it was not a road; new road building being anathema to such bodies.

The pro-HS2 lobby has been keen to exploit motorway phobia within the environmental NGOs. One proposition that I have heard more than once (see footnote 6) goes along the lines: HS2 will be capable of carrying the same number of passengers out of London as two six-lane motorways can accommodate, therefore we will need to construct two new motorways northwards out of London if HS2 is not built. Nobody would dispute that building two new motorways would cause far more environmental damage than will result from HS2, so we had better build HS2!

If this assertion was capable of passing even the most cursory of examinations, then I would admit defeat and pack up my stall, but of course it isn’t. It relies on the fundamental fallacies that the number of seats on offer is the same as quantity of passengers, and that passengers will switch en masse from train to car if there is a shortage of train seats.

A more scrupulous review of this matter, indeed one undertaken by the Department for Transport (DfT), produces the far less staggering prediction that, by 2037, around 25,000 car trips per day, equivalent to 0.9% of inter-zone car trips, will have shifted from road to HS2. The DfT concludes (see footnote 7):

“This 0.9% is equivalent to one year’s traffic growth and highlights that the impact of HS2 does not affect the key facts and conclusion of this document [regarding road transport forecasts].”

In addition, the DfT study assumes a modal shift of 7 per cent from road to HS2, whereas the latest forecast from HS2 Ltd that I have seen reduces this figure to just 4 per cent, so the impact on road travel overall will, if anything, be less than the DfT prediction (see footnote 8).

I believe that another reason that HS2 has been given a fairly easy ride by some environmental NGOs is early promises made that it would reduce carbon emissions by offering a more efficient alternative to road and air travel. If anyone in those NGOs still believes that, then they haven’t been keeping up with developments. These claims were seriously undermined by an early report published by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee cautioning that they “do not stand up to scrutiny” and that “HS2 should not be promoted as a carbon-reduction scheme” (see footnote 9).

Any lingering support for HS2 as a carbon reduction proposition has surely been scotched recently by HS2 Ltd admitting that, whilst there “is a large carbon saving associated with the operation” of HS2 Phase 1, over the first sixty years of operation this will fail to recoup the “significant” greenhouse gas emissions that will result from its construction, leaving a net debit that is about the same as the operational savings (see footnote 10).

The CPRE’s mission statement is:

“The CPRE exists to promote the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country.”

Unfortunately, it appears that is hasn’t occurred to the policy makers at CPRE HQ that HS2 may actually not represent a sustainable use of land – my blogs Scoring an own goal (posted 22 Sep 2011) and You weren’t supposed to read that (posted 26 Sep 2011) certainly set out a strong case that HS2 is an unsustainable project.

The environmentalists’ letter claims that the support for HS2 offered by the four named environmental NGOs “marks a serious decline in [their] legitimacy”. For my part, what I think that it demonstrates is that there has been a failure by the organisations to appreciate that the undoubtable environmental damage that the project will cause is an undeniably lose-lose, with no redeeming features to justify it.


  1. See Environmental groups’ failure over HS2 on the Opinion webpage of the Daily Telegraphfor 17thApril 2016.
  2. The four are:
    John Whitelegg – Visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University and Professor of Sustainable Development at University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute
    John Adams – Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London
    Mayer Hillman – Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster
    Stephen Plowden – Independent consultant and author on environmental matters
  3. The four organisations are:
    The Campaign for Better Transport
    Friends of the Earth
    The Campaign to Protect Rural England
  4. See, for example, Pass me my rose-tinted specs, part 1 (posted 8 Jun 2012) and part 2 (posted 12 Jun 2012), I’m trying to understand you (posted 16 Jun 2012), Putting it to the test, part 1 (posted 20 Jun 2012), part 2 (posted 24 Jun 2012) and part 3 (posted 28 Jun 2012) and So what do you think now? (posted 2 Jul 2012).
  5. The past Transport Secretary is the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP when speaking at the Transport Times Conference on 26thJanuary 2012, as reported in my blog Pass me my rose-tinted specs, part 2 (posted 12 Jun 2012).
  6. Examples being HS2 Ltd Technical Director, Professor Andrew McNaughton, in an articlepublished in the Daily Telegraph on 27thJanuary 2015 and Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer, in a House of Lords debate on 19th November 2013 (see column 952 of the House of Lords Official Report). I complain about a similar claim that HS2 Ltd Chairman, Sir David Higgins, made to the Sunday Times in my blog Paxo stuffing, part 6 (posted 5 Jul 2015).
  7. See Box 1 on page 6 of the DfT report Road Transport Forecasts 2013.
  8. See Table 12 on page 83 of the HS2 Ltd October 2013 publication The Economic Case for HS2.
  9. See paragraph 12 of Conclusions and Recommendations, on page 54 of Volume 1 of House of Commons Transport Committee Tenth Report of Session 2010–12 High Speed Rail.
  10. See paragraphs 6.1 to 6.4 of High Speed Two Information Paper E10: Carbon. You may also find the infographic on the HS2 Action Alliance website of interest.

Acknowledgement: I was made aware of the useful reference to HS2 in the DfT report Road Transport Forecasts 2013 by the Beleben blog A cost-ineffective means of addressing road traffic growth.

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