Can nimbys defeat high-speed rail?

Concept image of high-speed train Many people living along the proposed high-speed rail route are seething

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Most people are nimbys.

Most people care about where they live. If a government wants to run a road or railway through their back gardens, they will oppose it.

But nimbys are always politically weak. However strong the merits of their case, they are by definition seen to be putting their personal circumstances ahead of a potential public good.

The nation will benefit, so the argument goes, from a new highway or power station or wind farm and it has to go somewhere. Nimby, in itself, is a pejorative word.

So it is with the plans for a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham and beyond. A vocal network of campaigners has emerged all along the planned line as it passes through Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.

However well organised they are, however well funded, however articulate, the risk for these campaigners is that they are seen as the voice of Middle England crying out in anguish: "Not In My Back Yard."

Bitter fight

Thus the government, for now, has the upper hand.

There are a few local difficulties with Conservative MPs whose constituencies line the route. There are rows to be had with traditional Tory voters who are vociferous in their belief that a Conservative-led government has no business digging up this beautiful heart of England.

Start Quote

Nimbyism: An attitude ascribed to persons who object to the siting of something they regard as detrimental or hazardous in their own neighbourhood, while by implication raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere”

End Quote Oxford English Dictionary

The consultation will be long and the legislation bitterly fought.

But there are no parliamentary votes planned on the issue this until 2014 or 2015 at the earliest. Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, whose Chesham and Amersham constituency would be bisected by the line, has several years' grace before she has to choose between her seat in cabinet and her seat in the Chilterns.

The No campaign is also still tied into a narrative of nimbyism in the face of opinion polls showing strong support for the line.

However, the government would be wrong to be complacent. The public revolt over plans to sell some state-owned forests has sent a shiver down ministers' spines.

Here was an example of how a group of nimbys could transform their private, local concerns into a campaign about protecting a national good. People who had not strolled through a wood for years made common cause with those who do so every day. The government buckled under the pressure.

So, in the case of the high-speed rail line, opponents are trying to rise above sheer nimbyism to make a wider case.

They argue: why should we the taxpayer spend £32bn on a project of dubious commercial value? At a time of austerity, should the money not be better spent elsewhere?

'Growth strategy'

This is a white elephant which will make wasteful defence projects like Nimrod look like models of good value, they say. Why should we spend four times more to cut a railway than our European counterparts?

Why should our public services be cut so that a few rich businessmen can spend a few minutes less on a train from London to Birmingham?

And so on and so on. The message from the no campaign is not that this new line is bad for them; the message is that it is bad for all of us.

This is where the danger lies for the government and why the argument over the new business case and consultation is so important.

The government claims the new line will benefit the economy to the tune of £44bn and unite the north and south of England.

David Cameron and George Osborne are particularly keen on the new line because it gives them something to say when they are asked about what they are doing to grow the economy. A nice, juicy infrastructure project hat creates jobs is a strong tick in the box marked "growth strategy".

But the no campaign says the business case is exaggerated, the estimated demand is exaggerated, the environmental benefit is exaggerated.

So who wins this argument will matter because it will set the terms of debate for the future.

If nimbys are able to go national, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond's job will suddenly get a lot harder.

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