With parliament making the ultimate decision regarding HS2, much of the debate about the principles of the project will be conducted within civil society. We need ways of making these big infrastructure decisions that weigh local impact against the national interest, writes Dan Durrant.
HS2 and The Big Society may seem to have little in common. One is a big, expensive, national strategic decision the other is about the ‘little platoons’ of civil society filling the gaps left by a receding state. But looking beyond the (shaky) Westminster consensus, it is the politics of civil society that dominates HS2. In places as far apart as the Chilterns and Camden the public sphere is alive with small groups making the case, usually, against the project. To dismiss them as NIMBYs is lazy shorthand and foolish. Concern about the local environment in other circumstances is a mark of civic responsibility. It is also foolish to dismiss these ‘little platoons’ because, unlike our representative political bodies, these groups are not constrained. They can operate equally at the strategic and local level. They can attack the justification for a project like HS2 where it is weak, the Cost Benefit Analysis or the Environmental Impact Assessment. They can and do apply pressure on local politicians bringing issues onto the agenda.
The problem is that we have consensus in parliament and a polarised public debate. There seems to be no room for a balanced consideration of the issues. We need ways of making these big decisions that weigh local impact against the national interest. I argue that any solution needs to see civil society included in the decision making. And that the current argument over HS2, like the ones over London’s airports, windfarms or fracking, is certainly not the best way to decide upon how to meet our infrastructure needs.
Part of the problem is the tendency to depoliticise big infrastructure projects. Political decision makers try to hide behind technocratic and economic rhetoric. This leaves an uncomfortable democratic deficit. But as our allegiance to political parties and trust in government declines these strategies are less effective. The politics gets dragged back in by an able and engaged civil society. There is now an understanding of how to pick apart the technical basis of projects like HS2 and the assumptions behind them.
It does not help that progress is not what it used to be. In rapidly industrialising countries it is easier to make the link between infrastructure, progress and rising living standards. However, in the UK the costs of mitigation and compensation are rising. The value of the benefits might not be. And as the boundaries between public and private blur it is unclear what the ‘national interest’ is anymore. It is certainly clear that the beneficiaries of HS2 are not the ones bearing the cost.
The appalling record of overestimating benefits and underestimating the costs of these megaprojects does not improve the level of trust in their promoters. The allegation of ‘strategic misrepresentation’ hangs in the air. That decision makers buy into a fiction of low costs and high benefit until too much is invested to cancel the project. A more charitable view is that there is the tacit belief that the strategic benefits go beyond the narrow Treasury accounting tools. It may be true but it is neither transparent nor democratic to proceed on this basis.
Perhaps these allegations are too hard on the consultants and engineers who deliver projects like HS2. Large infrastructure is not as easy as it once was. When Stevenson and Brunel brought their railways into London they had to deal with a handful of landed interests. Most of the people displaced would not even have had the vote. One of the great successes of modern democracies is the duty of care to individuals, communities and the environment that constrain the market and the state. The demands, that projects like HS2 minimise the disruption they cause, are often the result of an active civil society. However they do add to the overall cost.
Is there a better way of doing things? If we look at HS2 we can see more complex, interesting politics beneath the polarised arguments that the media love. Civil society groups have been involved in establishing normative standards. CPRE has recently launched a project to make information on the scale of construction and impact of the project more transparent. The National Trust has devoted considerable resources to alternative landscape designs in consultation with local people. Even groups that oppose the project outright have suggested solutions like a property bond that deserve consideration. HS2Ltd do have high level input from the larger environmental charities through an NGO forum but the impact is hard to assess. However their consultation process seems to be fractious and confrontational rather than reassuring or achieving consensus with the communities affected.
With parliament making the ultimate decision much of the debate about the principles of the project will be conducted within civil society. The Hybrid Bill process restricts what can be considered. With an all-party consensus the ultimate outcome is not in doubt. The protest and legal challenge will continue and so we return to the question. Is there a better, possibly more democratic, way of reaching controversial infrastructure decisions? It seems strange that projects that tout their innovation seem happy to rely on Victorian decision making processes.
John Dewey’s principle, those affected by a decision ought to be able to influence it, is not a bad one. Projects like TGV Med have experimented with more consensual processes that try to combine expert knowledge and the views of those affected with some success. There are advantages to opening up the closed decision making processes that deliver large transport projects. The evidence above suggests there are plenty of civil society groups willing and able to engage.
Maybe we should accept that the experts and national politicians know what’s best. Or accept a very British way of reaching difficult decisions; conflictual, with a big fight that hopefully works out for the best. On the other hand maybe it is time to look for a more consensual way of making big choices over the infrastructure we need for an uncertain future?
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Dan Durrant is a PhD Researcher at the OMEGA Centre for Megaprojects in Transport and Development, part of UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning. His research is into the role of civil society in megaproject decision making and he is focusing on HS2.