Grassroots campaigning - Diary of a kitchen table campaign

Amid all the lobbying to save public services, one group has been arguing to drop a plan to lay a train line through the countryside. Claire Murphy reports.

Grassroots campaigning - Diary of a kitchen table campaign
Grassroots campaigning - Diary of a kitchen table campaign

Cuts to public services are prompting a new wave of grassroots campaigning. PRWeek followed the progress of one collection of loosely affiliated affiliated groups protesting the building of High Speed 2, a train line that would reduce the London to Birmingham journey time from 80 to 55 minutes.

MARCH

Transport secretary Andrew Adonis publishes a proposal for the preferred route for a new high speed train line from London to Birmingham, passing through the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A second phase would take the line up to Manchester and Leeds. Amersham Society is the first local group to issue a press release opposing the plan. At meetings across the area attended by hundreds of residents, some facing the compulsory purchase of their homes, the idea of a co-ordinated response is born. Rail management consultants Hilary Wharf and Bruce Weston prepare a response to the consultation on the Exceptional Hardship (EHS) compensation scheme offered by the Government.

APRIL

Wharf and Weston are joined by two other Chilterns residents to form the HS2 Action Alliance - Sarah Jane Axelby and Kathryn Gurney. Gurney brings experience of fighting plans for the HS1 in Kent. TV presenter John Craven visits the Chilterns to film the protest for BBC's Countryfile programme. By the end of the month the team has created a website (hs2alliance.org) and campaign materials for action groups to use. A Facebook page and Twitter feed is established. Information days are held to help residents fill in consultation responses. The focus switches from simply opposing the detail of compensation to pointing out the errors of the Government's case for building the train line, in preparation for a consultation on the project in early 2011.

MAY

Wharf and Weston meet HS2, the company that is preparing the case for the train line. The pair then produce their 'Property Blight report', pointing out the effect on homeowners of the possibility of compulsory purchase. The new coalition Government takes over and indicates that there may be some room for negotiation on the exact route. Philip Hammond takes over as Transport Secretary. Following campaigning by the Primrose Hill HS2 Reference Group, the Government delays its deadline for claims to the EHS.

JUNE

More than 25 local action groups meet to plan activities, as the consultation on compensation ends. More meetings are held with HS2 to lobby it on its projections for demand for the train line. The group is evolving its messages. One key message is now that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond's assertion that HS2 will help regenerate the North is not true because passengers are more likely to be heading North to South than the other way round. The alliance also produces calculations to show that a faster train will provide neither economic nor environmental benefits. 'The North is being conned,' says Wharf. 'It's the hothouse of London that will be boosted by this line. And the green argument that better rail will take passengers from the air just doesn't stand up - greater speed requires more energy.'

JULY

The Government creates the National Spending Challenge website, inviting the public to post ideas for saving public money. The HS2 Action Alliance mobilises supporters to post messages suggesting HS2 is cut. By the end of August, nearly half of the 44,000 messages posted are about HS2.

AUGUST

The London Evening Standard publishes a feature focusing on the fact that the HS2 is planned to plough right through the Primrose Hill homes of a clutch of leading actors and politicians. A week later the EHS takes effect and members of the Action Alliance appear on national breakfast TV and radio shows. The team prepares a myths vs reality letter to be sent to all MPs.

SEPTEMBER

Early in the month, the group scores a significant victory when the CEO of HS2 visits the team and promises that a consultation on the train line will review the national importance of the line and the exact route. Hammond tours sections of the proposed route and meets people from action groups. The alliance notices he has stopped using the green argument to justify the project and is talking more about the benefits to the North. 'We found it a disappointing visit,' says Wharf. 'He just gave us a wry smile when we asked about where the demand for the train service is going to come from.'

OCTOBER

Lizzy Williams, from protest group Stop HS2 - aligned with the HS2 Action Alliance - walks the proposed route from London to Birmingham, finishing up at the Conservative Party Conference. Fellow protester Joe Rukin issues a press release containing the quote: 'All the academic studies say HS2 will not benefit anywhere but London. We're facing cuts to health, education, the fire service, police service, even playgrounds, but David Cameron still wants his train set.' The story is carried on BBC Online. Later that day Hammond confirms the consultation on the route will begin in the new year, adding that 'this great connectivity is fantastic news for the North East and other regions and will transform the economy'.

PLANNING A CAMPAIGN - LESSONS TO LEARN

Steal tactics from similar campaigns. The alliance talked to organisers from HACAN, the group that helped to fend off the Heathrow third runway, and used the 'Myths' device on its website (bit.ly/aRXMkv) and in a letter to Transport Secretary Philip Hammond.

Encourage a network of local activist groups to project the key messages in their own way. HS2 Action Alliance is working with 53 affiliated residents associations, local councils and specially formed local action groups (www.hs2actionalliance.org/yourlocalgroup.php).

Look beyond self-interest in your key messages. HS2 Action Alliance relies heavily on dismantling the economic and environmental case for the train line, rather than Nimbyism.

Think laterally to build support. HS2's opponents enlisted backing from people in the rest of the country fighting budget cuts to their own services. These campaigners could then argue that it would be better to drop plans for the HS2 than to cut their local hospital or school's budget.

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