Getting on like a house on fire

Originally published on Peter’s blog, HS2 and the environment.

Also, the National Trust are having an information day, for for how HS2 could be incorporated into the landscape around Aylesbury, from 11am to 3pm at the Fairford Leys Centre, alongside Coldharbour Parish Council.  And there is a HS2 Ltd Property and Compensation Consultation event at Burton Green Village Hall today until 5pm.

In my blog Are you having me on? (posted 3 Aug 2012), which I wrote in the wake of the second round of community forum meetings, I contrasted the promises made by the, then, Transport Secretary and the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd of “engagement” and “working closely” with the communities that will be affected by HS2 with my perception of the reality; I characterised the community forums as an “expensive charade, stage-managed by HS2 Ltd”. In my blog “Words, words, words” (posted 4 Aug 2012) I gave an example, from my own Offchurch and Cubbington Community Forum, to illustrate why I have formed this opinion.

The third round of community forum meetings took place in September and I have now had time to reflect further on proceedings. Has my view changed? No, not really.

I am disappointed to be in this position, because two events took place between the holding of the second and third rounds of community forums that had given me some hope that things were improving.

The first of these was that HS2 Ltd responded positively to an invitation issued jointly by the action groups of Offchurch and Cubbington to a guided tour of the locations within the two parishes that would be affected by HS2. This visit took place early in August and was, at least in my view, a great success. We arranged for the HS2 Ltd representatives to visit significant locations on private land, something which they have not been able to do in many cases due to the problems securing access permissions that I discussed in my blog A bit of a rushed job (posted 2 Oct 2012), and to talk to some of our farmers.

Throughout the visit relationships were very friendly and the HS2 Ltd people appeared to be genuinely interested in what they saw and heard. A measure of this interest was that the visit extended well beyond the time that HS2 Ltd had allowed. For the first time in my dealings with HS2 Ltd I felt that I was engaged in a dialogue.

The second seemingly positive event came about a week later as a result of HS2 Ltd yielding to pressure and agreeing to meeting individual action groups in a number of “bilaterals” along the route. In a report to my parish council, I commented upon the Cubbington bilateral as follows:

“The atmosphere was much more collaborative than we have seen at the two Community Forum meetings and, dare I venture, even friendly. Also the HS2 Ltd representatives were a little more forthcoming about the work being undertaken, although some comments were made on a ‘strictly between these four walls’ basis and I got the sense that they were sometimes concealing more than they were revealing.”

However, as I look back on this bilateral I can see that I didn’t really get much out of it. The one design change that might have reduced the impact that HS2 Ltd revealed to me they were investigating – something that I was advised was “strictly between these four walls” – I have since learnt, from a comment made by HS2 Ltd not to me but to my neighbouring action group, has been dropped. Everything else that took place was really only fairly meaningless chatter.

However, it appears that, after being reluctant to hold bilaterals initially, HS2 Ltd now sees value in them and has announced a second round of these events to take place in November.

As for the third of my local community forum meetings, I’m afraid that I came away still with the impression that HS2 Ltd is big on talking and bad on listening. For example, much of time scheduled during the meeting was taken up by presentations by HS2 Ltd staff or consultants. I can’t help feeling that proceedings are being strictly controlled and manipulated by long-range puppet masters residing in the senior management corridor at HS2 Ltd headquarters. The HS2 Ltd representatives that attend certainly seem to have very little authority to respond to matters raised by local community representatives and the usual response to questions is that they will have to “refer it back”.

Judging by the flow of e-mails between action group representatives, my views on the community forums are pretty much universally held on the victim’s side. This is in sharp contrast to the picture that HS2 Ltd is keen to paint of a free engagement process. In fact HS2 Ltd appears to be trying very hard to keep the truth of what is happening from the public. The attendance of members of the public at the community forums as observers is strongly discouraged and the presence of members of the press appears to be something that HS2 Ltd fears. Where the press have been allowed access by HS2 Ltd, I understand that the condition has been imposed that nothing said by HS2 Ltd employees may be quoted. This appears to amount to attempted press censorship in matters which are of genuine public interest.

In order to increase public awareness and encourage public participation in forum meetings I requested HS2 Ltd to advertise the date and venue in the local press in advance. I was told that this was not something that HS2 Ltd wanted to do “because the nature of the forum and discussions would be likely to change and take on more of the tone of a public meeting”. What HS2 Ltd does not appear to appreciate is that parish councils operate perfectly well allowing public observation, and sometimes controlled participation, and welcome the presence of members of the press.

I am pleased to report that a number of MPs have written to the new Transport Secretary to ensure that he is not able to make similar claims for the process of local community engagement as his predecessor did, or at least that he will not be able to do so as a result of his failure to be in possession of the true facts. My own constituency MP, Jeremy Wright (who has attended a number of community forum meetings), has posted on his website a letter that he has sent to Patrick McLoughlin as his own contribution to this debate. In this letter Mr Wright sums up the attitude of many representatives of the local community who attend forums as follows:

“There is a widely held view among those who attend from the communities and local councils affected that there is little consistency in the representation from HS2 Ltd, particularly engineers, that the quality of presentations made by them is poor, that feedback on counter-proposals regarding the line is sparse and that information offered by HS2 Ltd is patchy and ‘drip-fed’ to the forums.”

Also in his letter, Mr Wright suggests improvements that should be made to the community forums to avoid the “growing and potentially toxic frustration with a process that many are beginning to feel is more about the transmission of HS2 Ltd’s messages than the opportunity to engage the community with the project.”

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