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Does the HS2 design panel have the teeth a watchdog needs?

Artist's impression of Euston southern entrance
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Sadie Morgan’s HS2 design panel is tasked with ensuring the nation gets a ’world class railway’ that maximises benefit to the country. CPRE head of infrastructure Ralph Smyth questions whether the real ’design train’ has already left the station

Ralph Smyth

Ralph Smyth

High Speed Two is the UK’s biggest infrastructure project, and it passes a major milestone this month. The final report of parliament’s High Speed Rail Bill Committee is due, and as one MP on the Committee - which has spent 159 days examining the route - told the Department for Transport’s Queen’s Counsel: ‘once you get past us, you know you’ve got the whip hand’.

The bill itself, which would grant planning permission for HS2 from London up to Birmingham, is expected to reach the House of Lords by Easter. Only once Royal Assent has been secured - by the time of the chancellor’s Autumn Statement, if all goes smoothly - will the bulk of detailed design work start. 

Fears are rising that design quality could be sacrificed now as pressure mounts to deliver. The HS2 Design Panel, first announced by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin at the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s annual lecture back in 2013, was supposed to make sure that HS2 would be an ‘outstanding example of design excellence’. Despite only formally being set up in November, information obtained this week by CPRE showed it has been making up for lost time. With 12 meetings held so far, it has advised on issues ranging from viaduct design and service procurement to community engagement.

The biggest concern now is that the panel’s advice won’t be given the weight it deserves. Of course, design review works best with early engagement, rather than blocking designs that are close to being finalised. What happens at the end of ‘hard cases’ can, however, influence decision-making more widely.

Although national planning policy and guidance are clear about the importance of planning positively, such as through outstanding and innovative designs, this is not reflected at all in the special planning regime for approving HS2 detail. Instead, this only allows refusal where it can be shown proposals are reasonably capable of being modified - without cost increases in other words - to preserve local amenity. Minimising harm, in other words, rather than adding to overall quality.

Besides being the promoter and paymaster for HS2, the secretary of state for transport would be the final decision-maker for any appeals against local authority decisions. It’s a system that feels more worthy of China than England. Hence the DfT QC’s blunt admission: ‘they have to approve whatever we propose’. This would generally rule out structural changes though could allow modifying the colour of some materials.

There is a risk that a narrow-minded focus will block innovation and integration

So what we’re now faced with is once-in-a-lifetime opportunities being missed. Burying electricity pylons running along the most sensitive landscapes of HS2’s route, for example, or designing in new cycling and walking routes through the wall of motorways separating east Birmingham from its Green Belt. Such long-term vision is a genuine part of the infrastructure imperative in other countries, fuelled by a passion to transform quality of life locally as much as perceptions internationally. Here, vision seems to extend only as far as the next hi-viz and hard hat photo opportunity for politicians and is tightly constrained by the construction boundary of each individual scheme.

CPRE has pushed hard throughout the parliamentary processes for this to be done so much better. Even though good design can cost less to build - and the benefits are far greater across the life of infrastructure, there is a huge risk that a narrow-minded focus on preventing any scope creep for the project will block innovation and integration. With the Treasury and its narrow calculation of short-term costs given the upper hand, our efforts have at times felt as productive as head-butting a green wall. 

Despite attracting an unprecedented wealth of talent, not least from the architectural world, the danger is that the HS2 Design Panel could be left high and dry. The authorities’ continuing refusal to write its role - in particular the weight to be given to its advice - into statute and associated guidance mean that it will have to rely on its stature alone. This may well be enough to win the day for a few high-profile structures but it won’t be for securing a lasting legacy through England’s countryside.

The next few months in parliament will be a critical time, the last chance before the legislative concrete sets.

Ralph Smyth is head of infrastructure and legal at the Campaign to Protect Rural England

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