Letters: Perspectives on high-speed rail

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Your correspondents (Letters, 16 August) point out that the Coalition is still prioritising spending tens of billions of pounds on a high-speed rail line while cutting front-line services. What is also a nail in the coffin of HS2 is the claim that it can be part of a "programme of measures to create a low-carbon economy".

A train travelling at 400kph requires three times the power of conventional rail. The UK is facing an energy crisis through restrictions in electricity generation capacity. This is brought about by continuing rising demand and the projected closure of several ageing coal-fired and nuclear-power stations before new nuclear and renewable electricity generation can be brought on stream. Trains requiring a massive increase in power do not fit with a sustainable future and a low carbon economy.

The Coalition believes high-speed rail is the solution to replace the controversial third runway at Heathrow, yet BAA admit that high-speed rail would simply feed more air passengers into Heathrow airport with increased demand for flights, strengthening the case for a third runway.

Belinda Naylor, Buckingham

Tracks will hit our water supplies

Hilary Wharf speaks of the cost/benefit of HS2 in monetary terms (Letters, 16 August). What is HS2's cost/benefit in terms of the environment?

The Environment Agency believes that during climate change drier parts of the UK will rely on aquifers as sites for transferred water injection and storage. In these structures, which are sparsely distributed, water will not be subject to evaporation.

Southeast England is one of the few areas in Europe whose water stress (water per head of population) is designated as extreme, the same level as that in Saudi Arabia. This situation is expected to become more critical over the coming decades.

The Government is planning many miles of excavation through the Misbourne aquifer to cut the journey time between London and Birmingham by 30 minutes. Is the benefit worth the cost?

Marilyn Fletcher, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Whose back yard?

I wonder if there is any connection between the passionate rejection of HS2 by your correspondents Marilyn Fletcher (letters, 12, 15 August) and Kyn Hazelwood (letter, 13 August) and the fact that their addresses – Great Missenden and Kenilworth respectively – are both within the area likely to be affected by the new railway. I expect the residents of Coalbrookdale would have objected to the establishment of iron-smelting in their back yard, but then Britain would not have led the industrial revolution.

David Simmonds, Elstree, Hertfordshire

No passport to Oxbridge

The supposed catastrophe of thousands of straight-A students-to-be who are left without places in a university is easily explained ("Must aim lower", 19 August).

Those straight-As left without places filled up their UCAS forms entirely with Oxbridge/Russell Group institutes without taking into account that they might not get into them. Sensible straight-A students apply for Oxbridge/RG universities, and have one or two non-RG applications as a contingency. Just as happened last year, the few competitive universities fill up, and thousands of those who didn't make a contingency plan for a "lesser" university end up not going to university at all.

It isn't a gross violation of rights; it's just an inevitability and a classic case of people not learning their lesson from the year before and selfishly entertaining a sense of entitlement to a Russell Group university. David Willetts isn't being a monster; what he's advised is plain common sense.

James Saunders (18, ABC), London SE21

There has been much argument as to whether today's young people should pay for their own university education because of the benefit to them, or whether we should all pay because our society needs an educated workforce.

To compete in our increasingly globalised commercial environment we need a good supply of graduates in serious disciplines. We should all expect to pay to educate people in maths, the sciences, engineering and medicine, for example. But this year's UCAS listings are full of courses for jobs which are not essential to our society. There is a whole page of subjects with "sport" as the first word. On the creative side, there are courses in dance, drama, media studies, music, musical theatre, and theatre.

If we did not have to pay for students of frivolous subjects, there would be money available to fund the training of the workforce we need. Of course, we must have sport and arts in our lives, or the world would be a dull place , and we must not forget that the creative arts contribute to our export earnings. But the number of training places on offer is out of all proportion to the size of workforce we need in these areas.

Traditionally the great majority of the population has been employed in jobs that need doing and people have indulged their passions in their spare time. Only the fortunate few have been able to earn their livings doing what interests them most, and it does our present generation of young people no service to let them believe that it can be otherwise.

Michael A Isserlis, Northwich, Cheshire

People homeless, houses empty

Mary Ann Sieghart makes useful points about what caused the rise in house prices, including loans that represented mad multiples of salaries ("House prices are finally falling. Good", 16 August). She says there is little the Government can do to help prices fall further, but calls for more houses to be built. Christina Patterson made a similar point in her column on 11 August ("Why is social housing such a mess?").

Is this the best solution? Although house-builders might welcome it because there would be more properties to sell, and banks because they can lock in more buyers on long-term mortgages, more housing means more roads, shops, schools, hospitals, offices and factories.

Housing cannot be built on its own without all the other development needed to support residents. And let's not forget that there are about 760,000 empty homes in the UK. Should we not ensure they are repaired and occupied before pressing for more to be built?

As for there being little government can do, here are three suggestions. First, provide financial incentives to encourage businesses to move to areas where there is a surplus of housing and so-called housing market failure.

Second, raise capital gains tax to discourage speculators from buying up houses as safe investments. And third, through the tax system, make it expensive for people to own more than one home. These suggestions aren't vote-winners. But that's part of the problem; our housing crisis needs radical and probably unpopular solutions if it is really to be solved.

Sebastian Macmillan, Cambridge

Let Mary Dejevsky be assured that Shelter absolutely understands the realities of our housing crisis and the needs of the 1.8 million households stuck on waiting lists ("Will it really be an angry autumn?", 13 August). Our frontline services see these people every day and we know the devastating impact the lack of secure housing is having on their lives.

Shelter fully supports any proposals to tackle under-occupancy across all housing tenures, provided this is done in a way that ensures people are not torn away from their communities and can retain links to jobs, services and support networks. Otherwise, such proposals could end up costing more than they save.

Even the Government recognises the difficulties in moving elderly people from their homes, which is why its recent proposals on under-occupancy focus on working-age adults instead.

It is also worth highlighting that only one in eight of those claiming housing benefit is unemployed; many are people struggling on low incomes themselves. Unfortunately, this seems to be lost among the extreme examples that are muddying the debate.

Kay Boycott, Director of Policy and Campaigns, Shelter, London EC1

Victory in Iraq – again

So the last brigade of American troops has left Iraq and combat operations in that country are over. At least that is what the increasingly unpopular and desperate American President Barack Obama would like us to believe.

However, one inconvenient fact has been left out of the narrative. There are still 50,000 US troops stationed in Iraq. They have simply been branded as "transitional" instead of combat troops. The narrative is also missing the fact that there are still a significant number of mercenaries operating in Iraq, who will continue to function as US proxies under the auspices of the US State Department even if the 50,000 transitional troops ever do leave Iraq.

This is the second phoney end to the Iraq war that America has announced. The first was in 2003 when George W Bush assured us, after three weeks, that major combat operations in Iraq were over. We all know how that one went. This one is just as fraudulent.

It is just the latest in a long list of lies about Iraq from 45-minute WMD to direct involvement in 9/11 to ties to al-Qa'ida – all the time forgetting that Saddam Hussein was a creation of the CIA and the best Arab friend the US/UK had right up until 1990.

Alan Hinnrichs, Dundee

If ever a military operation was misnamed, it is Enduring Freedom. After a week that has seen hundreds of deaths in Iraq, the US is celebrating the end of combat missions, saying the job is done. Mission Accomplished? Oops.

Paul Harper, London E15

People are becoming obsessed with the Tony Blair witch-hunt, and it seems even a charitable donation is a war crime.

The man did what he thought was right, and I for one supported the war in Iraq, although I confess that the results are far worse than anyone could have predicted. But it was our moral duty as a strong nation to help a troubled one, just as it is the moral duty of a rich man to help the disadvantaged.

Beth Strange, Inverness

Shake-up in the boardroom

The issue of gender imbalance in UK boardrooms should be addressed as a matter of urgency ("How equality remains elusive in the British boardroom", 14 August) but the scope of any investigation into diversity needs to go wider.

As we point out in our report on Improving Board Effectiveness, a consultation exercise we are running on behalf of the Financial Reporting Council, the real issue for companies is about introducing diversity of business experience into the boardroom. One of the reasons why some of our financial institutions fared so badly during the recent crisis, and why companies generally fail, is because there is not enough challenge in the boardroom.

We need to see a greater presence of the kind of director who is capable of thinking and acting differently, not afraid to ask the awkward question, and confident in tackling what may be a comfortable, even complacent, culture. More women directors may address the gender issue, but bringing about the required change in boardroom behaviours requires an even broader policy response.

Seamus Gillen, Director of Policy, Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, London W1

Prince works for a better world

I was disgusted by Julie Burchill's vehement attack (18 August) on the Prince of Wales and his tour of Britain promoting the need to live and work in more sustainable ways.

The Prince works tirelessly for a better world, be that for the thousands of people that have benefited from the Prince's Trust, or the rainforest nations that are beginning to see solutions emerge to make their forests worth more alive than dead.

As a planet it is clear that we are living far beyond what will sustain us in the long run. The Prince should be congratulated for taking a stand, for taking to the streets to try to make a difference.

To suggest that "every single leader and spokesperson [of the Green movement] is filthy rich" discredits the thousands of people that care, that lead, work and speak for better environmental standards.

Being wealthy or with a privileged position can provide unique opportunities to spend unpaid time influencing. The Prince has not wasted his opportunity to put his position to good use in things that really matter for us now, and for our children later.

While Julie Burchill is away, perhaps she could reflect how she might use her privileged position as a columnist to make a positive difference rather than to just criticise.

Justin Douglas, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Why does Julie Burchill (11 August) go on about "appeasement" in Afghanistan as if the situation there were remotely comparable to Europe in 1938? Having gobbled up Austria, Hitler then asked for chunks of Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Taliban have expressed no territorial demands and, indeed, have never asked for anything except to be left alone.

One would very much like to know, on the other hand, precisely what it is that the US and UK want in the region.

On the subject of Islam, Burchill feeds her hostility with misinformation. The umma is not, as she mistakenly claims, "the one-ness of the international community of Islam": it is merely the world-wide collectivity of Muslims, whatever they practice or profess.

It is thus the precise equivalent of "the body of believers" in Christian terminology, which, as I was taught by the Catechism, constitutes the Church, including all Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, and perhaps even a few Southern Baptists.

John Rodenbeck, Brousses, France

I just had to write and express my admiration for Julie Burchill's excellent piece about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Only a fool thinks the Taliban are defeated and the mullahs are gone. These lunatic Muslim fanatics have only one aim: to get their hands on the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and use it in jihad against the West.

Only the courageous men and women of Britain and the US stand in their way.

Steve Gay, Glastonbury, Somerset

Disabled housemates

Further to John Walsh's Wednesday Essay (18 August) Channel 4's Big Brother does make a spectacle of disability, but thank God for that – disabled people had been excluded from our screens for far too long, confined to worthy documentaries and distressing news stories. BB has been a force for good in normalising disability – showing disabled people as they are, not always likeable, not always admirable, brave or heroic, just human. Disabled housemates have all been housemates first, people with disabilities second.

Out of the ghetto, into the Big Brother house and beyond – the inclusion of disabled housemates on BB led the way to much wider inclusion across all areas of the TV schedule, from Location Location Location to The Sex Education Show. The legacy has been huge and from a disability point of view wholly positive.

Alison Walsh, Disability Executive, Channel 4 Television, London SW1

Seeds that sprout in fire

Your correspondents Jo Dunn, a distinguished botanist (letter, 13 August), and Stephie Coane (15 August), could both be correct in referring to rose-bay willow herb and thorn-apple as fireweed.

Datura stramonium requires a high temperature for germination; the small, flat seeds have a very hard outer shell. I know this because I used to grow it for use as a plant virus indicator.

As for the plant's hallucinatory properties, the leaves give off such a disgusting smell that one would have to be under the influence of something extreme before experimenting with it.

I have seen thorn-apple growing in Germany, and last autumn I found a flowering specimen growing at the edge of a ploughed field in northern Serbia, which suggests it is a plant on the move.

John Anderson, Grampound, Cornwall

Drugs ban an expensive error

Yet another respected and informed professional, Sir Ian Gilmore, former President of the Royal College of Physicians, condemns the criminalisation of (some) drugs (report 17 August).

It is clear to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear that the UK's drugs policies are a counterproductive, expensive and damaging wrong turn, with nothing to support them apart from prejudice and ignorance.

If Parliament can happily ignore the public mood on, notably, capital punishment why can't it do the same on drugs? Come on, Dave, do something big with your turn at the wheel.

Jim Bowman, Harrow, Middlesex

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