Sarah Lee is Head of Policy for the Countryside Alliance.
After five months of consultation and over 40 road shows, the Government’s consultation on the proposal for a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham finally comes to a close today. The Countryside Alliance has been following this debate closely, as the route runs through some of our most beautiful and protected countryside and communities.
What has become clear to us and many of our members is that the enormous human and environmental costs are being ignored. The Alliance has been conducting our own survey of members and supporters living near the proposed route, running in tandem with the Government consultation, and you can’t help but feel a deep sense of compassion for the people whose lives and livelihoods – and those of their families – are being destroyed by this hugely expensive Government project.
Family homes and businesses, to which people feel a deep emotional connection, are set to be destroyed by the current plans. Yet, despite rural people being most affected by the proposed HS2 route, communities living in the countryside will see no local benefits. There are no proposed stations between London and Birmingham, confirming that high speed rail travel will be accessible for people living in urban areas, but the impact felt most keenly by those living in the countryside.
The Alliance believes passionately that the countryside, important wildlife habitats and biodiversity must be a factor in any major project and that it is in the national interest for these things to be protected if a sound economic case cannot be made.
Protection of the countryside is even more important in the case of HS2, as the line will cut through the Chilterns – an area of outstanding natural beauty. This is a national designation intended to protect some of England's finest landscapes, which confers on it the highest level of protection. Any development which would cause damage to an AONB has to be shown to be in the national interest and demonstrate why it cannot be located elsewhere.
A member of the public told the Countryside Alliance that “there is no point having an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is supposed to be protected, if the government can just ignore it at their convenience.”
At a time when we are seeing 20 per cent cuts to most Departmental budgets, the Alliance does not believe that HS2 is worth the billions being spent, or that it will bring the economic returns promised. We are not against high speed rail projects in general; we just do not believe that the current proposal offers significant benefits when compared to the human, environmental and economic costs that the countryside will have to bear.