It is no secret that the plan for HS2 has occupied the public imagination for several years, only falling into shadow of late due to the huge Brexit fallout and the (welcome?) distraction that Extinction Rebellion protesters provided. Now that both are past their prime, Boris Johnson made heads swivel when he announced his support for the development, once more giving Brits reason to be hot and bothered.
Until this point, the argument has been largely between commuters, country-dwellers and conservationists. But how greatly will it affect the rest of us – both on an economic scale and on an environmental one?
What is the HS2?
HS2, or High Speed Two, is a high-speed railway link purporting to run at 250mph, connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. It will be paid for by taxpayer’s money, and the projected cost is expected to be between £66 and £88 billion.
What is so good about it?
The HS2 is a mass-scale infrastructure project that aims to tackle many of the country’s transport links. Through creating increased accessibility in the West Midlands, and through the actual construction phase itself, it hopes to create thousands of jobs, as well as massively reducing commuter time (for example, London – Birmingham would take 45 minutes rather than 81).
Asides from these benefits, the HS2 would free up vital capacity on existing transport links. The HS2 is hoping to have 1,100 seats per train, with 14 trains running every hour. With more seats available on existing train services, it is believed that this will improve journey experience and will help prevent delays and other disruptions.
Money, money, money
The HS2 has majorly divided opinion across the UK. There are major cases being put forward in opposition to the line, predominantly regarding the environmental threats the HS2 poses and the exorbitant financial costs.
What was originally forecast to be a budget of £32.2 billion in 2011 has ballooned to a figure somewhere in the range of £66 and £88 billion - although some figures have crept into play like a sinister game of chinese whispers, and it is now estimated to be closer to £106 billion.
The ever-increasing costs of the HS2 are a source of irritation and bitterness to a country coming out of austerity. There is also a lot of confusion surrounding the figures of the development, whilst has already cost billions so far – though nobody seems to know how much.
Cause for alarm?
England’s countryside has long attracted visitors from across the globe, and our green pastures and rugged landscapes are highly distinctive. Brits have always been highly sentimental when it comes to protecting our rural areas, so the fact that these are under threat means it is no big surprise that many people are not welcoming the HS2. Adam Cormack, a leading campaigner at the Woodland Trust, has stated that ‘HS2 will shoot a poisoned arrow through the heart of ancient woods and their wildlife’.
Organisations such as the Woodland Trust and the National Trust have commented on the detriment HS2 will wreak on areas of natural beauty, acres of ancient woodland, and their wildlife.
A 46,000 strong petition has already been signed in a bid to save veteran forests. According to figures from the Woodland Trust, 61 of these woods along the proposed HS2 route have already been marked for partial or total destruction, whilst a further 47 will suffer damage due to dust, vibration, light and noise from the nearby railway.
The National Trust have further expressed concerns for species such as the Brown hare and deer, as well as for the cultural heritage sites they protect. These concerns are corroborated by hs2actionalliance.org, who claim the HS2 will tear through over 130 wildlife sites, including 10 sites of Special Scientific Interest and more. More species affected will include otters, bats, voles and rare butterflies.
Ancient woodland accounts for a meagre 2.4% of the UK’s landmass; that it should be so largely affected by the HS2 construction is alarming. These habitats and complex ecosystems have been growing for hundreds of years, and simply replanting them cannot replace their loss should they be destroyed. The Woodland Trust has submitted solutions that can help alleviate some of the environmental impacts of the HS2, such as using methods like tunneling, though these solutions appear to have been largely dismissed.
In addition to environmental livelihoods, there are other people directly affected as well. One couple have been ordered to leave their house in Buckinghamshire next month; its impending demolition due to the fact it is in the way. Mr Ryall, who was born in the house, says that his family have occupied it for a century and will refuse to move.
Whilst these factors are all cause for concern, this fantastic, economic opportunity is expected to occur… well, that’s the problem. Stage 1, which was originally forecast to be completed by 2026 has now been pushed back to somewhere between 2028 and 2031; with Stage 2 not being completed until 2035-2040. With the final product nearly a generation away, it is hard to see these issues as an immediate threat; however, it is equally difficult to see the benefits of the HS2. Maybe the eventual economic advantages will prove to be worth the wait; but, in the meantime, a country already financially stretched will only see money being spent.
It is also very difficult to justify such flaky aspirations of improved commutes and better capacity when it means sacrificing the greatest English heritage of all: our glorious forests, home to Robin Hood, folklore, Fae, and the collective British imagination.
We have many transport links and railways in dire need of attention and improvement. Surely many jobs can be created through improving upon what we currently have. Money tends to be the object when it comes to renovation; but if taxpayer money can be sourced to fund a £106 billion project, can that not be injected into updating current links?
Whatever comes of the long-awaited HS2, it will be an interesting decade or so. I eagerly await more substantial reports regarding how the project plans to safeguard Britain's nature and wildlife. After all, we should be the ones fighting for it, considering that unless Tolkien was right, trees cannot talk.