Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Now HS2 is a conspiracy as well?

with 4 comments

If objectors to the second phase of the UK High Speed Rail network (HS2) want to appear at all credible they must avoid any appearance of NIMBYism. Not only has Lord Astor, the Prime Minister’s father-in-law (i.e. Samantha Cameron’s step-father) failed to do this but, by recently suggesting that the approval of HS2 is the result of a conspiracy of “northern Labour MPs who relish the thought of the beauty of the Chilterns being destroyed”, he also appears to be a few shotguns short of a shooting party.

With all due respect to Lord Astor, I fear he could not have thought that remark through very well: Does he think that a similar bunch of northern MPs exported all the adverse environmental impacts of the Industrial Revolution to the south of England out of spite? Does he think that similar people approved the building of the first railway from London (Marylebone) to Aylesbury for the same reason? In more recent time, did such people also approve the building of the M40 (including an enormous cutting west of Stokenchurch), or the dualling of the A41 between Hemel Hempstead and Tring, because they wanted to despoil the Chiltern countryside? Of course not. To say so is sheer lunacy: All of these things were done – many admittedly in an age before Environmental Impact Assessments and Public Inquiries were quite as rigorous as they are today – because the benefits of the development were considered to outweigh the disadvantages.
Eurostar (HS1), near Maidstone in Kent, bound for Europe.
High Speed Rail exists. Get used to it. It is not going to go away. The UK may well be on the geographic and political periphery of Europe, but that does not mean that we should shun 21st century technology that the rest of Europe will undoubtedly embrace. The UK may no longer be “the dirty man of Europe” but, if we do not do this, we will eventually become “the slow man of Europe”. For the country that gave the world the Industrial Revolution, this would be ironic to say the least.

The arguments may rage on about the green credentials of HS2, but I think that anything that has the potential to get people out of their cars and out of the skies must be a good thing. But, since faster trains use disproportionately more energy than slower ones, it would seem to me that HS2 will have to run on renewable electricity for it to stand any chance of being Green. However, given that the trains will not be running for another 12 to 15 years, there would appear to be a very strong likelihood that this goal is achievable.

If HS2 will run on renewable electricity, I believe it is very hard to argue against it from a Green perspective without being guilty of NIMBYism. I think the Coalition Government must have realised this because, just as Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, politicians do not generally implement policies they know will be unpopular with their supporters. HS2 needs to run in a straight line between London and Birmingham and, unfortunately, that line takes it through the Conservative heartland of the Chilterns. Therefore, if the Coalition Government is willing to tackle rural Conservative opposition head-on, it must be convinced that doing so is in the wider interests of the country as a whole. I happen to think that they are correct.

Whilst regular readers of this Blog will be familiar with my antipathy towards “growthmania”, I am not anti-progress. However, I would not be in favour of HS2 if were being sold to us on the basis of facilitating greater amounts of perpetual economic growth. As Derek Wall makes clear in his No Nonsense Guide to Green Politics (2010), despite the best efforts of Lady Thatcher and the late President Ronald Reagan, history has proven that economic growth does not reduce poverty (p.69). In general, growth encourages greed and over-consumption, and aggravates existing inequality. However, although “the institutionalised destruction of nature” (Arthur Mol) is the design flaw in modernity that Ecological Modernisation seeks to fix, that does not mean we should not build HS2 because it will supposedly “scar the landscape…” Did the Neanderthals worry about that when they built Stonehenge; or the Ancient Egyptians when they built their Pyramids?

So, if it will run on renewable electricity, the decision to build HS2 is, in my opinion, a no-brainer: We need to get people out of their cars and out of the skies but we cannot expect everyone to stop travelling. The existing network is already terribly overcrowded and will probably reach its capacity limit within the next 12 to 15 years. HS2 will make it possible to carry many more people over the same distance in any given amount of time. If you think of the current system as being like a garden hose, HS2 will be like a high pressure fire hose: Capacity problem solved.

Therefore, we should not allow NIMBYism to stand in the way of progress.

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Written by Martin Lack

14 January 2012 at 00:02

4 Responses

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  1. A good argument but you spoil it somewhat by suggesting that Neanderthals built Stonehenge (it was Bronze Age! Later even than the golden age of neolithic stone-circle building).

    As you said, the green arguments rage – “if HS2 will run on renewable electricity” is a BIG if (whatever people think of their environmental impact, nukes definitely don’t count as renewable!), and it’s not at all clear that it *will* reduce car transport or aviation. And certainly not energy consumption in the transport sector as a whole. Of course it could do address all of these if Government used HS2 as a pretence to act against them, but to quote that great commentator of our age, Harry Hill, what are the chances of that happening?

    richplane

    5 April 2012 at 14:02

    • With apologies for delayed approval, thank you for these comments. (Thanks also for putting me right on my ancient history.)

      I realise the green energy thing is a big “if” but, that is my view and, at the time of writing I had submitted an application for a job with HS2…

      Martin Lack

      8 April 2012 at 14:25

  2. Your statement ” the benefits of the development were considered to outweigh the disadvantages” has an awful lot of wiggle room.

    hengistmcstone

    9 April 2012 at 00:14

    • Unfortunately so but, that is why governments love Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA); they provide defensible means of justifying almost anything. If you look hard enough, you could probably find advantages to allowing Nazi-style genocide. As a species, we certainly seem remarkably comfortable with permitting ongoing ecocide.

      Martin Lack

      9 April 2012 at 09:24


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