The Royal Assent of the HS2 Phase 1 Act marks the creation of the first of three pieces of legislation that will allow the Government to build HS2. The hybrid Bill process used to deliver this legislation has the potential to confer greater powers on the Government’s developer, in this case HS2 Ltd, and therefore to undermine normal planning processes. The complexity and national nature of projects like HS2 make the use of the hybrid Bill process appropriate, but it is essential that this does not become the tool of choice for permitting smaller scale developments that are currently regulated by the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Process.
Royal Assent for HS2 between London and the West Midlands means that HS2 Ltd will now be able to compulsory acquire and enter land along the route to continue surveying, preparing wildlife habitats for disruption and ultimately to build the whole railway. HS2 Ltd and their contractors will need to work with sensitivity and with plenty of early engagement with the local communities facing up to a decade of disruption during construction of the railway, as well as the significant enduring impacts of living and working in proximity to a high speed railway.
Engagement also needs to sit at the heart of the next big step – design of the railway scheme. The HS2 Phase 1 Act requires HS2 Ltd to design and build the railway within parameters that encourage but do not guarantee good design. The HS2 Independent Design Panel is already at work, and they will play a critical role in holding Government to account over the sensitivity and appropriateness of the design of individual elements of the railway. Decisions made over design, of both permanent and temporary features of the railway and construction sites, need to be made in close concert with local communities.
In particularly sensitive landscapes such as the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Aylesbury Vale, huge care must be taken not to scar the landscape beyond the inevitable harm that constructing a large modern railway will bring, and planting and screening work needs to be carried out with reference to the natural and historic grain of those landscapes. In the Chilterns the unfortunate decision not to put the railway completely into tunnel makes this care and early attention of high priority.
As the construction of the railway begins, we expect HS2 Ltd to be much clearer about how they will approach finding, interpreting and giving public access to inevitable archaeological finds along the route, including in the landscape around places in the National Trust’s care for the nation, such as Hartwell House and Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.
As HS2 Ltd temporarily and permanently takes possession of land to build this railway, it needs to remember that individual and national prosperity lie at the heart of its justification. It should get to work only with sensitivity and care, alive to the living and historic landscapes and communities that it will either help or hinder if we are really to consider it a world class railway that inspires future generations.