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LIB DEM CONFERENCE - HS2- Transport Minister Norman Baker concedes impact will be greater in Camden than Chilterns

As Norman Baker bigs up HS2
As Norman Baker bigs up HS2, Cllr Flick Rea tells the world why it is flawed

Published: 22 September 2011

LIBERAL Democrats have been in the thick of trying to persuade their colleagues in government to abandon plans for the high-speed rail link threatening to demolish a trail through Camden.

The High Speed Two (HS2) link has been branded a “vanity project” and, due to the Lib Dems’ glowing support, at least one of their big names on the front bench has been accused of being “in thrall” to the party’s Conservative partners in the coalition government.

Transport Minister Norman Baker infuriated the delegation from north London by claiming that opponents were conjuring up “spurious” objections.

A chink of light for those lobbying for a rethink came late on Tuesday night, however, when Mr Baker was openly challenged in front of his supporters at a fringe meeting.

He was forced to concede for the first time that the potential disruption in the first few miles of the HS2 route – particularly around Euston – may not have been fully appreciated at a government level. He pledged to look again at concerns.

“I’m sympathetic to Camden,” Mr Baker said.

“I don’t think the issue of Camden has been heard in the papers as much as the issue of the Chilterns has been. That may be because the people in the Chilterns are by and large better connected. We have taken great steps to deal with the Chilterns.”

Members from Camden have used their week here at conference in Birmingham to try to secure promises that the London end of the HS2 line will get a full review.

This week away is often a time when rank-and-file members from all sections get their worries about party policy and its direction off their chests in open meetings – or at the very least in private sessions.

But the Lib Dem national leadership has been relaxed enough to joke that they have felt suspicious about the lack of dissent among coffee-break gossipers.

Members from Camden have not been so easy on the government.

Group leader Keith Moffitt, former leader Flick Rea and Cantelowes ward councillor Paul Braithwaite all gave television interviews at the canalside International Conference Centre directly opposing the coalition government on HS2, which is essentially one of its flagship policies.

The criticism is centred on what the effects on Camden will be, but delegates from north London have revealed wider reservations about a scheme which will cost at least £30 billion to construct.

At a time of cuts to public services, the willingness to spend so much has mystified cynics.

The number of different rail routes to the conference itself, with trains arriving at Birmingham’s three mainline stations, has left London delegates wondering whether the need is as great as the government has suggested.

Cllr Braithwaite has possibly been the most vocal.

He said: “I am saddened that our Lib Dem Transport Minister, who is responsible for encouraging more sustainable transport, was so unquestionably in thrall to [Transport Secretary] Philip Hammond’s ill-conceived, obscenely expensive vanity project.”

While nationally, all three main parties are in favour of the project, they have raised concerns locally, albeit with varying force.

The Labour council was accused earlier this year of dithering over what stance to take, with the claim that senior figures felt the possible regeneration rewards around Euston were too tantalising to dismiss.

The project, after all, began life during the Labour government.

But the demolition of existing housing estates has made the scheme hard to stomach for even the most ambitious councillors.

Holborn and St Pancras Labour MP Frank Dobson has been vehemently opposed. About 400 council homes could be wiped out by the construction work as the track beats a way north through the borough.

Sceptics have grumbled that worries in Conservative areas have been more speedily addressed during the planning stage, particularly in the Chilterns.

The issue came to a head at conference on Tuesday night when Mr Baker and Cllr Braithwaite locked horns at a fringe meeting which had essentially been organised to celebrate the plans to build HS2.

The meeting on the first floor at the Jury’s Inn, organised by transport provider Keolis, was packed with HS2 supporters.

When asked if anybody was against the scheme, only two hands were raised – one being Cllr Braithwaite’s.

Against a background sound  of clinking knives and forks as those present ate plates of roast beef and sautéed vegetables from their laps, Mr Baker set out why he was so enthusiastic about the new rail line.

“We simply haven't got enough space for the demand, we haven’t got the capacity,” he said. “It is not an option to fiddle around with the west coast main line again, nor the east coast main line for that matter.

“You end up with the idea that you need a new line and if you are going to have a new line the cost of it is only marginally more if you have it high speed than if you have it conventional speed.

If you have high speed, you start attracting people who wouldn’t normally be attracted to the railways. Rail is having a renaissance in terms of high speed. There are also economic development benefits.”

He added: “You start reducing journey times and people start saying: ‘Hang on a minute, why am I taking the plane?’ and you start making inroads into that market.

What does concern me is that people who have legitimate concerns about the route are not saying this is affecting me personally or affecting my land.

I don’t mind them saying that. But what they are saying is this doesn’t make economic sense or it’s bad for carbon. They are finding spurious reasons to oppose.”

But when the session was opened up to the floor, Cllr Braithwaite challenged him over the wisdom of the project.

“I really don’t think the business case stacks up and I certainly don’t think the carbon case is congruent with our climate change agenda,” said Cllr Braithwaite. “I suggest Camden is the worst affected of the local authorities. Camden has Euston, which will turn into ground zero

“This is not an affluent group with gardens to protect or nimbyism. This is the destruction of a community.”

This led Mr Baker to concede: “I think the impact, in so far as we can identify if the line goes ahead as proposed, is greater in Camden, at the London end, than it is at the Chilterns. There are demolition issues in the Camden end that need to be addressed.

I’ve never committed myself publicly or anywhere else to the route. I am personally open to options that deal with London as sympathetically as possible.”

HS2 will begin at Euston and head to the Midlands. In later years, the route is planned to go further north and even possibly to Scotland. If approved, the line will take about eight years to build and will open around 2025.

A Y-shape route splitting at Birmingham and forking to Leeds and Manchester is currently under discussion.

The complaints from Camden, however, are now stretching beyond the immediate worry about what will happen to Euston and areas around Kilburn, where a shaft will be installed. Cllr Moffitt confirmed the Lib Dem group in Camden had concerns about the entire plan.


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