HS2 – Selling the Crown Jewels

HS2 will pass along the horizon as seen from Betty’s Wood
This week the northern route of High Speed Rail 2 to Manchester and Leeds was announced.  HS2 is, apparently, going to bring about an economic miracle, creating jobs, slashing journey times and cascading prosperity out from London to the North.  But in the process, it is going to blight the lives of many individuals and communities for many years to come, destroy many jobs and businesses with knock-on effects to the local community and it is going to cut through priceless, irreplaceable wildlife habitats and countryside.
HS2 to the North is going to go through 17 ancient woodlands, one SSSI and up to 30 biodiversity action plan sites.  It is going to cut through two of the three country parks used by people in North Warwickshire (Pooley and Kingsbury Water Park).  It is going to cut the National Forest in two.  It is going to destroy businesses and severely impact upon farms en route.
HS2 will cut through the trees in this picture
Transport corridors are important habitats for wildlife – we know this and the Natural England White Paper acknowledges it.  Trees and plants alongside road and rail provide refuge for many birds, plants and animals.  So what is the big deal?  Surely a new railway line will actually provide a lot of wildlife habitat?  Well, yes.  The problem is that most of this habitat is relatively low-grade, and supports relatively few species, and is of relatively low quality.  High quality habitats, such as lowland heath in Staffordshire, or ancient woodland, or SSSI, take many years to develop.  These habitats may be small in area but they are high in quality, with many ecological niches that support a wide diversity of plants and animals.  You cannot recreate this – once it is gone, it is gone forever.  And little by little we are destroying ancient woodland, justifying it by the benefit to the economy, and by the fact that it is only a little bit we are destroying.
But the fact is you cannot replace the crown jewels with a skipload of cheap jewellery, which is effectively what we are doing here – destroying beautiful, high quality, rich habitat and replacing it with a lot of low-grade habitat.  In doing so we do two things:  first, we diminish the available ecological niches and reduce diversity and second, we reduce the connectivity between remnants of the ancient habitats and thus reduce its resilience to insult.  And insults come, either from construction of the railway itself, or from natural events such as fire, flood, drought, chemical incidents and so on.
HS2 to the North will pave over an area of countryside the size of the City of Manchester.  It will also open the way to construction on open countryside for housing and businesses associated with the railway.
HS2 will cross the Coventry Canal
The fact is we cannot continue to consume the countryside.  But what about the economy?!  Well, what about it?  The business case for HS2 is built on some quite heroic assumptions – that new jobs will be created (other than in the construction of the railway itself), that increased capacity is required, that the railway is carbon friendly and sustainable.  All of these can and have been challenged.  The Public Accounts Committee has already amber/red-flagged the project from the economic viability viewpoint.  The fact is that in other countries where high speed rail has been built, some communities have been winners and some losers, but the issue of whether jobs have actually been created, as opposed to moved around is very unclear.  The benefits of the railway have been valued to include knock-on jobs such as catering, but the costs have not included knock-on losses of jobs which either move (relocate towards the new stations), or are lost (if, for example, people switch from flying and existing slower trains, with loss of jobs, catering and so on, not to mention businesses destroyed by the line itself).
HS2 will pass behind this mound and through visitor centre
Nowhere in the economic case is the opportunity cost mentioned:  that is, the cost of what is lost if you spend the money on HS2 as opposed to something else e.g. local transport links and hubs, proper freight connectivity from East to West coasts, schools, hospitals and so on.  Alternatives to HS2 have been considered in terms of different types of transport links, but no full opportunity cost appraisal has been carried out.
And worst of all, nature and ancient woodlands are not valued at all, other than at the value of the land.  Yet woodlands and forests can in themselves benefit economy, wildlife and community in a sustainable way, and in a way that rail links cannot.  Land is valued just at market value, not at its potential economic value, be that in farming, business, sustainable forestry or from the ecosystem and services that it provides.  Even if the principle of reducing everything to a monetary cost is uncomfortable, the fact is that nature provides economic benefits of a huge amount already, and has the potential to deliver a lot more.
Alvecote Wood – ancient woodland habitat
The railway will not go through our woods or our house, although it will pass close to the woods – indeed, our woods are one of the closest ancient woodlands to the line apart from those through which it will pass.  But it will affect our wildlife. Our landscape-scale conservation project is under threat as the railway cuts through and potentially cuts off some of our partners, and makes it harder for wildlife to move freely along the Anker Valley corridor.  It will compromise the very thing that we have been urged to do by the Government in the Natural Environment White Paper, underpinned by the Lawton Report.  Shy wildlife is likely to retreat from the construction, perhaps never to return. Already-tenuous connections will be severed.  A local Forest School base is now threatened, and children may lose the ability to learn in a natural woodland environment.  Communities who have invested time, effort and money in the wildlife parks on their doorstep will now lose out.
And homes and communities will be blighted.  Is this NIMBYism?  Suppose you had struggled all your life to pay for a house, or to build up a business in rented property.  And suddenly you find your house cannot be sold to pay for your long-term residential care.  Or your business will be bulldozed, leaving you to move, and lose the goodwill and clientele you have built up.  Farmers can’t move easily, be they tenants or landowners, yet many face their land being cut through, buildings and businesses on the site destroyed, and links between fields and farm buildings severed.  This is not NIMBYism, it is about real suffering caused to real people, many of whom cannot get compensation in the time-frame within which it is required – indeed, some can’t get compensation at all.  It is about fairness – it is about making sure that advantage for some is not gained at the expense of disadvantage to others. It is about fair treatment for communities and people wherever they happen to live.
But mostly it is about the destruction of wildlife and habitats – habitats that are, by the Government’s own admission, valuable.  Habitats that have been supported by public money and community goodwill.  Habitats which have taken thousands of years to develop will be destroyed by drawing a line on a map.  It is about selling the crown jewels for a skipload of plastic.  A few people will undoubtedly gain from HS2, but everybody will lose.  Just how much longer can we go on chipping away at the crown jewels of our countryside?

True wealth

What is wealth?  GDP?  Per Capita GDP?  GDP growth?  Balance of trade?  A particular income?  A particular lifestyle?  Bling?  We are conditioned to think of wealth in terms of economic wealth, the stuff we own.  Having stuff is nice.  It makes life easier.

However, there is another kind of wealth – and it is something we can experience for free, any day of the week, almost everywhere.  Nature is incredibly rich in beauty and diversity.  Some of my most amazing experiences have come in natural places.

So it was that I was walking around our woods yesterday.  In the space of about 90 minutes, I was privileged to see and photograph a nuthatch feeding her chicks, a kestrel with prey being chided by a blackbird, a brimstone butterfly exploring the new buckthorn bushes we planted this winter, and an unbelievably cute pair of tawny owl chicks dozing in the summer sunshine.  Then there were the things I heard and didn’t manage to photograph – the chatter of the nesting blue tits and great tits, the jackdaws, the blackcaps and their lovely scratchy song, the chiffchaffs, the great spotted and green woodpeckers, the nuthatches and treecreepers, the angry wrens, the stealth voles, and rabbits, and muntjac deer, a glimpse of the fox.  Then there are the things I didn’t see, or pay much attention to, but upon which all of these other species depend – the beetles, bugs, flies, larvae, other insects, lichens and moss, leaf litter, grasses and sedges, reeds and rushes, bark and logs, the fungi and flowers, including our beautiful bluebells, coming to their best right now.

In our tiny little patch of land, just 20 acres, there was so much wealth it was brimming over – so much I couldn’t even see it all, or take it in.  And that is just 20 acres, on just one day, in just one place.

Even in the town, in our little garden, we have nesting sparrows stripping the pampas grass for their nests, busy blue tits taking bugs from the crab apple tree, in which we also have woodpigeon making a rather poor attempt at nesting.  I see collared doves, long tailed tits, greenfinch, goldfinch, mallard, herons, buzzards…and that is just in the garden, and just the birds.  There is a lot of other stuff too.

A recent visit to the woods by a beetle and bug expert in foul weather revealed nearly 40 species of beetle and bug.  FORTY species – and most of them I had never seen.  In better weather, on another day, there may well be many more.

All around us are amazing things, in amazing places, one of which is our lovely ancient woodland. What is sad is that so few people now get the chance to experience a truly rich habitat like this.  Woodland is destroyed, trees chopped down, and although planting new trees can be good, and in time will produce habitats for many creatures, it can never reproduce the wealth that has been developed over hundreds, or thousands of years, in these special places.

The Transport Secretary recently suggested that ancient woodlands could be dug up and moved to make way for HS2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-17867138 – a statement that betrays a lack of understanding of the difference between a truly rich, wealthy habitat, and an also-ran.  We need a lot more also-ran habitats, a lot more woodlands, heathlands, grasslands, hedgerows and new ponds – but we must preserve the true gems that we also possess.  This doesn’t mean that they should be monuments, devoid of human activity or life.  Indeed, human activity has shaped these habitats, and sustainable management of these woods by coppicing is instrumental in providing a truly rich habitat.  But it does mean that they should not be destroyed.

Just spend a day in one of these rich places with somebody who knows what to look for, and you will be astounded at what is there, right on our doorsteps, completely for free.  Perhaps that is the problem – this wealth is not monetary wealth, and we don’t usually have to pay to enjoy it.  So we don’t value it in the same way as we value our stuff.  Until, eventually, it isn’t there any more.  By which time we have become conditioned to an impoverished existence, devoid of the wealth the nature has to offer.  How very sad that would be.  Nature is treasure of the highest order.  It is true wealth and upon it all other types of wealth depend.  I hope we learn this before it is all gone.