THE BLOG

HS2 - Will David Slay Goliath in the Battle for Hearts and Minds?

08/12/2015 15:47 GMT | Updated 07/12/2016 10:12 GMT

My experience as Corporate Affairs Director of Railtrack in the dark days of rail privatization taught me that the British public have a love-hate relationship with their railways.

In our case, nostalgia for the golden age of rail seemed to blind our critics to the much-needed investment the capital markets would deliver to a railway in the private sector.

HS2 offers a similarly challenging communication conundrum. The proposal to extend the HS2 project from Birmingham to Crewe will bring a new wave of support and opposition and reignite the debate on phase one of this controversial project.

Surely we all want HS2. It will open the door to new jobs and prosperity in the great northern cities that powered the UK's original industrial revolution. It will spread the wealth of London more equitably. Astonishingly, it will be the first mainline railway built between UK cities since 1899.

Japan, France and other European high-speed networks have seen huge investment. Railways create big environmental advantages and HS2 will relieve the increasing pressure on our increasingly crowded roads.

But the scheme - the most costly infrastructure project ever built in this country - has attracted heavy criticism and an extremely effective grassroots campaign is driving home its key messages to communities and decision makers. Although HS2 is supported by Parliamentarians from all major parties, opponents cite this as another example of the Westminster elite being out of touch with local opinion.

My advice to HS2 is to proceed with caution on the PR front. The project might have the big guns of Whitehall and Westminster behind it, but there are plenty of booby traps and banana skins waiting to derail wider public opinion.

The Guardian's Patrick Barkham recently walked the proposed route of the rail line and seemed to encounter opponents every step of the way.

Issues he describes range from threats to bats, ancient woodland and historic buildings, to the sheer cost and value for money that this mammoth engineering undertaking represents.

A strong umbrella pressure group, 'Stop HS2' is mounting a highly effective grassroots campaign and building coalitions to spread their three simple messages: 'No Business Case, No Environmental Case, No Money to Pay for it'. They make excellent use of social media and, by using macro financial and environmental message, cleverly avoid the charge of nimbyism.

They are then very adept at creating compelling human interest stories as proof point to support their narrative. The elderly owner of a cherished Elizabethan manor house threatened by the new line makes good copy for local and national press, with strong visual impact to give a TV angle. And there are hundreds of similar examples along the route.

The Government, for its part, has created a dedicated HS2 team, using the strapline 'Engine for Growth'. Its Corporate Affairs Director, Tom Kelly, is a highly experienced infrastructure specialist, having previously held the top communications roles at Heathrow and Network Rail, after an earlier career in government communications, including a spell as Tony Blair's spokesman.

The highly respected Kelly has put an expert team in place and HS2 is currently filling the role of Head of Community Relations to lead a team of 30 with a budget of £1m. The successful candidate will be 'comfortable with ambiguity and change' and have 'experience using new and innovative communication channels'.

Stop HS2 relies on an army of volunteers and raises money through cake sales, quiz nights and donations. However, social media, with its enormous power and reach, empowers pressure groups with a strong strategic focus to achieve ambitious communication objectives.

Recently plans for a giant wind farm, off the Dorset coast, were scrapped - despite strong support from Government and energy giant EDF - after small local pressure groups campaigned against its impact on the Jurassic Coast UNESCO world heritage site.

A lot has changed since the railways were privatized, not least the development of social media, which, if properly managed, can create huge impact for a small financial outlay. But rail projects continue to attract great media, political and public interest. It will be interesting to watch from the sidelines as the HS2 engagement battles are fought.

Will big government and big communication budgets be enough to steamroller the growing army of campaigners?