Earlier this week I read John Bishop’s facebook response to Ed Milliband’s “deep disappointment” at HS2 being routed through his constituency in Doncaster. It was obvious from the comedian’s post that he is no fan of the project and he’s not alone. Whilst the NIMBY response is to be expected, a poll carried out by YouGov in 2013 found that 42% of the British public supported and 37% opposed the plans, with northerners (the supposed beneficiaries of the project) opposing the most! And whilst I acknowledge the poll was conducted some time ago, I can only assume the figures are perhaps even worse now since the Government has conducted its own polling on HS2 but has refused to release any information deeming that it is against the public interest whilst the policy is still being developed.
As with any large-scale infrastructure development, public opinion is often split. Clearly, there has to be a ‘needs of the many against the needs of the few’ approach and I imagine if I lived next door to a proposed high-speed rail line, nuclear power plant or international runway I would have a different view. Of course, there is a wider viewpoint as projects need to have a positive economic impact to justify any initial concept, but they are also required to meet sustainability and socially responsible parameters.
So what can the government and rail companies do to launch a charm offensive to really highlight the benefits of this high-speed project? Perhaps a good start would be to learn from those who went before; HS1 here in the UK, and the numerous high-speed projects internationally. A Collingwood client of mine, HS1, met with objection when it launched but now nearly ten years on it carries the majority of London – Paris travellers and its domestic services are full and standing during peak hours – a success, surely (well at least for those who have a seat)?
With many of our rail clients either already directly invested in HS2 or expecting to be part of the project's supply chain, the opportunities cannot be ignored. Obviously, I am aware of the employment opportunities but take for example Alstom’s Widnes investment. Bringing train manufacturing back to the North West with an aim to win contracts related to HS2, their investment includes a £20 million technology centre. The centre will focus on research and development providing training in engineering, manufacturing and project management. All much sought after skills within the transport sector. As well as possibly generating 600 jobs and the upskilling of the existing workforce, the academy will support a future workforce too, with apprenticeship and new graduates programmes also being offered. Having been involved with Alstom from the start of the project, I certainly can see the positive impact HS2 is having in the North West.
Mike Hulme, Managing Director of Trains & Modernisation at Alstom showing Collingwood's Managing Director, Doug Mackay andJennifer Jones, Director of Collingwood Consulting around Alstom's new site in Widnes.
I admit, if you speak to one of the UK’s major contractors or a rolling stock manufacturer you will probably get a rose-tinted viewpoint on the project with many having a vested interest in the potential windfalls contracts could bring. But you also need to take into account the voice of the people who will be most affected by the project, many of whom will find it hard to justify their lives being turned upside down for an economic benefit they feel they may never see.
I know from the events I have attended regarding the project, and conversations I have had with people involved, the views of the general public are something both the government, HS2 and the rail sector generally are taking very seriously. They know that any project of this nature and scope will have implications on people’s lives, both financially and culturally. Although you wouldn’t think it from the headlines we read about HS2 a lot of thought and investment has gone into minimising these potential impacts.
Unfortunately, though, there is no such thing as a zero impact development and tough decisions have to be made but they must be made for the right reason and benefit the majority. The approval process for green-lighting developments can’t be adopted to feed a political agenda or to benefit big business only. The general public needs to understand the benefit to them not just the benefit to companies’ shareholders. Therefore, the process must be as transparent and fair as possible which takes me back to the start of this article; if the popularity of HS2 is poor don’t hide the figures, do something about it!
One thing is for sure however, this is not the first nor will it be the last major project to come up against the public backlash.