HS2: A danger to the greenbelt?
The government’s planned High Speed 2 rail line has garnered a lot of criticism from groups across the political spectrum for a variety of reasons. It is a rail line initially planned to link only two British cities, and one that will result in the destruction of up to 50 ancient woodlands (a problem worth its own post). HS2, as the Department for Transport’s website argues: “will fundamentally improve rail infrastructure in this country, breaking with twentieth century railway thinking and practices.” However, with many groups arguing that it will be an expensive waste of money and permanently damage the green belt, many habitats, woods and forest, it’s worth analysing whether it will change our experience of the countryside forever.
Positive environmental effects?
On the HS2 website, there is a page entitled ‘Positive Environmental Effects’. Within it, they argue that HS2 will be positive for the environment as a whole, as it “will see millions of air and road trips move to rail, reducing carbon emissions and congestion, and the space it will create for freight will move hundreds of HGVs per hour off the roads.” On the surface, then, it appears that HS2 will have a positive impact on the environment, at least in terms of emissions. However, environmental groups have been sceptical, with a government environmental audit committee concluding that “at best, the [emissions] savings are likely to be relatively small”.
Furthermore, the government is yet to take into account the impact HS2 will have on our landscape and countryside. Their plan to offset the resultant losses in biodiversity that will be caused by the destruction of ancient forests is to dig up the trees planned for demolition and replant them in another area, in what would be perhaps the most stunning misunderstanding of how ecology actually works. These are some of Britain’s oldest and most unique areas of countryside, which would be permanently lost if the plans go through. It will also result in the demolition of over 1,000 buildings, many of them listed, which would also result in Britain’s only surviving Roman temple being concreted over.
It appears, then, that HS2 will permanently alter the British landscape, and, thanks to mismanagement and poor planning skills, it looks like it will be altered for the worst.
The environmental alternative
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, however. The Wildlife Trusts are currently lobbying for a more environmentally friendly plan that would work alongside existing HS2 proposals.
“Our vision is a 1km ribbon of wildlife-rich landscape either side of the line – planned, established and run by a partnership of residents, landowners and local and expert groups. […] HS2 could be a means to put nature (and people’s access to it) back into areas of lowland England where it has been lost – to raise our environmental baseline following decades of decline.” – The Wildlife Trusts, ‘A Greener Vision for HS2’
Their proposals involve protecting and actually improving the countryside around the HS2 line in order to ‘buffer’ and protect ancient areas of the landscape. It also involves the creation of ‘Low Speed 2’, an extension of nationwide footpaths and bicycle routes that run alongside the track, further encouraging a reduction in local emissions. Better yet, they have calculated that their proposals would cost less than 1% of the total HS2 budget.
On its own, then, HS2 looks to permanently damage and even destroy the British countryside. But if The Wildlife Trusts’ proposals are included, HS2 could actually hugely improve the countryside and result in greener, more enjoyable and abundant natural areas. This could result in more people being able to access and enjoy the green belt after years of decline. Whether HS2 will end up being ‘green’ in this way obviously remains to be seen. For better or worse, HS2 is clearly going to change the British landscape forever.