Second HS2 letter to Patrick McLoughlin - October 2012
I have written to you separately on the subject of the Community Forums which HS2 Ltd is running along the proposed route of HS2, but I wanted to raise a number of broader questions about the project with you.
As you know, I remain of the view that a high-speed rail network in the UK would be better delivered making maximum use of existing transport corridors, doing much less environmental damage. I have not taken the view, however, that it is in my constituents' interests for me to withdraw altogether from detailed discussion of the current preferred route if it is to be used. Consequently I have argued for change to the preferred route and been pleased to see several of them incorporated in revisions already made. There is however considerable scope for further improvement and HS2 Ltd has been clear in confirming that there is scope for additional changes to the route if a convincing case can be made for them. You will understand, however, that my constituents would be profoundly concerned if the case for further improvements to the line had to be made in the context of a fixed budget allowed for such changes as opposed to an assessment of each and every proposal on its merits. It would be helpful if you could confirm the Department's approach in this regard.
The likely impacts of HS2 on homes, community buildings and businesses remain largely unknown and of course deeply concerning. Foremost among those impacts are noise and vibration and very little information is available on likely levels and the approach which will be taken to mitigation. I appreciate that much of the detail can only come when the design of the line is finalised, but it seems to me that the fundamentals of the Government's approach to mitigation can and should be finalised more urgently. Will the approach on noise for example, be that a level of noise will be set for different locations, above which the levels of disturbance will be deemed unacceptable, and that in calculating that noise level both existing noise sources and the effects of HS2 will be included?
Alternatively, will the maximum acceptable additional noise which HS2 should create on a given location be set? I am not asking for the levels at which such limits may be set, which I accept will be a matter of complex assessment, but for the general approach to be taken. Early genuine dialogue is essential with communities and councils on these issues and the methodology for the estimation of the annoyance that noise and vibration will cause and the benefits that mitigation should confer.
The economic case for HS2 continues to be the focus of considerable debate and, in particular, the Benefits to Costs Ratio (BCR) which has changed considerably since the last Government published its plans. Current Government estimates of the BCR for HS2 are substantially lower than earlier such estimates. Ihave read detailed criticism of even these later estimates, asserting an overestimation of benefits based on unconvincing demand projections or inflated assessments of the value of some savings based on unrealistic salaries for likely passengers. Points like these have particular resonance of course in the wake of recent news about the West Coast Mainline Franchise. These criticisms are often put most cogently by the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA) for example. What I have not seen is a cogent and detailed rebuttal of their arguments by the Government or by HS2 Ltd and in my view the need for this is great and urgent. We must have either a robust and comprehensive answer to the points HS2AA are making, or, if the Government's case is that, regardless of a weak BCR, the argument for HS2 is still strong, a clear exposition of that case.
I appreciate that you will be reviewing all aspects of HS2 at the moment and I hope that you will be able to take these points into account as you do.