Why the government must start consulting locals before building

Photo: Getty

It should go without saying that any new infrastructure should have the largest impact on those living within its immediate vicinity. It would, let’s be honest, be a giant waste of money to build a new road or railway line if the locals weren’t being benefited. Yet all too often these large infrastructure projects, particularly those originating from the top echelons of government, have a history of silencing local voices.

One such example of locals being excluded from the decision-making process can be seen in the plans for the High Speed Railway 2.

Not only has the project already been denounced by a 2006 joint report for the Treasury and the Department of Transport, which instead argued for the upgrading of existing rail routes, but 17 local authorities lining the vast majority of the Phase 1 London-Birmingham route are also ardently opposed to the project. These councils, which collectively represent 3.2m people, are using everything at their disposal, from legal challenges to petitions, to put the brakes on long before the first train has departed.

One would think that governmental overruling of local authority opposition is perhaps the result of a larger majority of the general public backing the plans, but alas. Of the almost 55,000 respondents to the initial consultation on HS2, 58 per cent did not feel that a high speed rail network would provide the best value for money for enhancing rail capacity and performance. Less than 30 per cent felt that it would. Despite this, the first phase received parliamentary approval in February last year and surveying work has begun.


This same top-down approach can be seen with the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. This ambitious road-building project is part of a wider scheme to encourage economic development and, most importantly, house building across the “Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc”.

According to proponents, the Expressway is vital for the building of a further one million homes by 2050. But once again, the inhabitants of these regions are not being consulted on the issue. In December last year, Oxfordshire County Council carried a motion by 49 votes to five, with one abstention, criticising the lack of public consultation on the “need for the road or the local impact of any particular proposed route.” Last month the “preferred” route was confirmed by the DfT but there still has been no consultation.

By omitting public input, a vital opportunity to catch any potential oversight is missed and money is misspent, with big projects in under-invested regions dropped in favour of ones nearer the capital. Almost symbolically, on the same day the parliament voted in favour of the third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a move hugely opposed by local residents, the government rejected the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, which had significant backing from the Welsh government.

But this is hardly surprising when you consider that between 2012 and 2017, London and the South East, regions home to just 32 per cent of England’s population, received almost half its total public spending on transport. And with the new runway and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway on the horizon, the next five years are predicted to similarly favour the area.

A government required to actually listen to the public when it comes to infrastructure investments is a government more likely to distribute wealth fairly. If democracy played its part in these decisions, government ministers would not only be able to act on valuable local knowledge but would also be encouraged to look further afield than the capital and its surrounding regions.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.