Residents fighting the £33bn high-speed railway are not nimbys. They’ve just looked at the plans more closely than the rest of us
It’s either the polarised times we’re living in, or just the sorry condition of Britishness; whenever there’s an argument about anything, it always has a class subtext, and nowhere is this more striking than in the case of the incredibly fast, so far hypothetical train, the HS2.
They’ve got into a pitched battle without fixing on the moral highground, which we can only hope is the worst oversight of the project. So anyway, here they are, the pros and the antis – pro-HS2 former transport secretary, Phillip Hammond, blamed nimbys, “people who just happen to live in Wendover or Aylesbury or Amersham” (for which, read “posh”). Anti-HS2 Lord Astor (Sam Cam’s stepfather) blamed “Northern MPs” (for which, read “common”) who were jealous of the Chiltern countryside. And there’s been this hum throughout, that the real opponents were all people of tremendous privilege, who therefore deserved to lose their stupid hills. At the beginning of the week, a London-based columnist wrote in the Independent: “Oddly, there seems to have been almost no campaign against HS2 from the people in London who will lose their homes rather than their views”; for which, again, read this as a class struggle.
And finally, the London anti-HS2 lobby have had enough: Peter Jones, of the pan-Camden HS2 Alliance, points out in a measured way that they have been campaigning; that this is not rich against poor, the only rich people will be the ones on the incredibly fast, incredibly expensive train; that, fundamentally, every objection they make, logical, practical, technical, environmental and moral, is “being rebuffed by bare assertion”.
“I’m not a serial protestor,” he says wryly. The pan-Camden group are a pan-social gathering, some of them residents of the Regent’s Park estate that will be cleared to make way for a much larger Euston, some of them transport experts who live in the borough, some simply residents who oppose the plans on practical grounds: that it’s just a concrete corridor, a sop to those lobbying for the ill-fated new terminal at Heathrow and a vanity project for Cameron. The easiest, least complicated sympathies go to the residents of that estate. If they rent, they’ve been promised alternative accommodation, but not necessarily in the same borough. In different times, that might not sound too bad, but given the news earlier this week that Croydon council has been offered the use of housing in Walsall, 157 miles away, nobody could take this lightly. People who own their properties will be paid a flat fee, which wouldn’t be high enough to buy anywhere equivalent in the postcode.
If the pan-Camden alliance hasn’t had the same profile as the Chiltern lot, that is partly because their methods differ. “We’ve been very academic, so we haven’t had any demonstrations. Well, we’ve had a couple, but not like the Chilterns, where they’ll wave their placards. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … ” Instead, they’ve built an opposition to the plans among local councillors (who were originally in favour) and greens (ditto). It’s the unglamorous work of sustained argument, but the trouble is, Jones says, “once this has gone through on a hybrid bill, if it’s voted through, then the promoters, with the bill in their hands, can do whatever they like. There’ll be no local involvement, forget the local council, forget the planning department.”
It always amazes me that the more closely you examine any local plan – from a Sainsbury’s Local on a London street to a £33bn rail project – the clearer it is that the locals have no say in anything at all. HS2 was put out to consultation: 55,000 people responded, and they disagreed with everything in it. They disagreed with the necessity, the route, the principles and specifications, the appraisal of sustainability, the assistance to those whose “properties would lose a significant amount of value”. Sentences so convoluted with jargon a passerby couldn’t even unpick them, they still disagreed with, by huge margins.
I can’t help, ungenerously, thinking of that Onion headline, “Local residents oppose some new thing”; nothing will ever be built without somebody nearby objecting to it, and the internet amplifies objections that might once have just morphed into simmering individual resentments. But that doesn’t make local objection meaningless, and the attempt to shoehorn this into a class war misses the point by miles. There is a question to answer about whose interests you serve, when you dismiss the locals as nimbys; it’s not necessarily the wider interest. I get the impression that the residents lining the route of HS2 object to it not because they’re closer than the rest of us, but because they’ve looked at it more closely.