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HS2: Keeping expectations on track

Future public support for HS2 is likely to hinge on the validity of the projected economic benefits, consultation with local communities and the alignment of rising service expectations with actual service improvements.

In order to garner public support, pro-HS2 lobbyists have attempted to shift the debate away from operational improvements and journey time reductions, instead seeking to position the project as a necessity in bridging the North-South divide. The reputational risk to HS2 is in its dependence on this economic argument.

The narrative for Osborne’s “engine for growth in the north and in the Midlands” is not without contradiction. The dispute over the £15bn of economic benefits discussed in the KPMG report and recent criticisms by centre-right think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (which listed the project’s “enormous” tax bill and the risk of new technology undermining its purported benefits by the time of completion) have both contributed to undermining this narrative. Weaknesses in this narrative have resulted in mainstream media coverage increasingly being coloured by those opposed to the project. Positive coverage of the second reading of the bill was marred by Europe minister and MP for Aylesbury David Liddington stating he would resign at a later stage if not convinced by HS2’s offer of compensation and environmental mitigation.

Public support for the project also has the potential to wane should the UK be impacted by adverse weather conditions. As with flooding across the UK in January 2014, disruption to infrastructure networks has raised criticisms of perceived shortfalls in infrastructure investment and resulted in calls for HS2 funds to be reallocated for flood defences.

Along with cost concerns, alleged poor consultation has formed a cornerstone of the opposition argument and as the project progresses, the rights of local residents being seen to be encroached upon is likely to generate significant negative local media coverage. The HS2 phase one community forums, which were to be used as a soapbox for resident concerns, were recently branded “insulting and patronising to blighted communities” in a report by campaign group STOPHS2.

Successful consultation with local communities is a key determinant of sentiment towards major infrastructure projects. Pockets of local discontent can quickly become mainstream media headlines if local MPs choose to bring these issues into the political forum. Moreover, communication between formerly disconnected campaign groups against major infrastructure projects has significantly increased. Grassroots lobbying best practice is now often shared online by disgruntled residents on social media, resulting in a more strategic and effective opposition to contentious projects.

The greatest risk to long-term support for HS2 is in the borrowing of reputational capital from the future. Positive public sentiment won from political advocates communicating future operational and economic benefits could quickly turn sour if these benefits are not realised. Similarly, in the event of unforeseen delays or costs, prominent politicians may seek to attribute blame to HS2’s leadership, as through their vocal support of the project, the reputations of political advocates and HS2 are now inextricably linked.

For HS2 there remains some reputational upside. Narratives around job creation in cities in the North, the environmental benefits of low-carbon transport and making the UK more appealing to foreign business all have the potential to win pockets of support with key stakeholders. Championing these benefits and satisfying the concerns of local communities and government will be integral to winning public support should the project’s projected economic benefits be further called into question.

Support for HS2 is a complex reputational issue, dependent on a significant number of variables. Policy decisions by future governments, the changing macroeconomic environment and the opinions of local community spokespeople, political figures and mainstream media publications all have the potential to sway the debate on high-speed rail.

 

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