“Not some Constable country”

Ever since I got involved in this HS2 business, I have kept a file of press cuttings. “How sad is that?” I hear you cry. I’ve got the file open in front of me at the moment and I’m looking at an article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 11th December 2010. The Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Transport, is quoted in this article responding to concerns expressed about how the HS2 plans will affect the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); the quotation is “This is not some Constable country”.

It is not often that I find myself being able to agree with Mr Hammond on matters concerning HS2, but I feel that I have to concur one hundred percent with this statement on grounds of geography. Constable country is in the Dedham Vale AONB on the Suffolk-Essex border, whereas the Chilterns AONB lies just northwest of London.

However what I think that he really meant was that the Chilterns was somehow an “inferior” AONB to Dedham Vale and could be trashed with impunity. Here I part company with the Transport Secretary; as far as I am aware there is no official grading scheme for AONBs. You can argue about the aesthetic superiority of one example of landscape compared to another until the cows come home; it is very much a subjective assessment. I personally believe that the rolling, wooded countryside of the Chilterns is very beautiful, but Mr Hammond obviously prefers something wetter.

A view that Constable missed - the Misbourne Valley viewed from Shardeloes Farm (photo: Chilterns Conservation Board)

In one respect however the Chilterns might be rated as more valuable than the Dedham Vale and that is accessibility. The Dedham Vale is relatively thinly populated, with less than ten thousand people living there. The population of the Chilterns is around 100,000 and the proximity of the AONB to London means that half a million people live within three kilometres; extend this to forty kilometres and over eight million people are covered.

Due to its attractiveness and accessibility the Chilterns AONB is the most popular area for walking in Britain, with fifty-five million visits per annum. Many of those visitors arrive from London by train at the stations along the Misbourne Valley, such as Great Missenden. Within a few minutes walk of leaving this station you can be in the middle of one ancient wood (if you head westwards, past Roald Dahl’s house) or in another ancient wood with Iron Age earthworks in it (if you head eastwards).

Philip Hammond doesn’t think that his pet project will do much damage to the Chilterns. In his written statement to the House of Commons announcing the launch of the public consultation he commented that “all but 1.2 miles [of the route] would be in tunnel, cutting, or close to the A413 road corridor”. Well tunnels do of course reduce the impact, but concerns have been expressed about the effects that a tunnel may have on the hydrogeology of the area and, particularly on the River Misbourne (refer to the article here for further details). The main tunnel also requires emergency access shafts to be constructed and so is not entirely invisible on the surface.

As for cuttings, these do screen the finished railway but require huge holes to be torn out of the countryside that they cross and increase the land take for the track and so cannot be described as having a minimal impact on the environment.

The mention of the “A413 road corridor” is somewhat disingenuous. The track will run alongside the A413 for only a short part of the route, travelling through open countryside for the most of the time. Also the A413 is a relatively minor, single carriageway road that links the small market towns of Wendover and Great Missenden.  It also runs parallel to the tracks of the Chiltern Railways service between Amersham and Aylesbury; perhaps that is why it has been described as a transport corridor.

Chiltern Railway south of Wendover (photo: Chilterns Conservation Board)

Of course, it’s not just the track that will damage the Chilterns. In Kent during the construction of HS1 they built more miles of road than railway line; the same will probably happen with HS2. We can expect that there will be new roads for access to the line and to transport materials, equipment and spoil; tiny lanes and holloways risk being widened and reconfigured and destroyed and the character of the whole area will be changed, irreversibly.

I invite you to form your own opinion of the extent of the environmental impact that HS2 will have on the Chilterns. There is a description of the route through the Chilterns in section 8 of the Route Engineering Report written by Arup for HS2 Ltd (which may be downloaded here). However for a more graphic illustration, I strongly recommend the presentation of photographs that may be found here (click on “view slideshow”).

But, I hear you say, aren’t AONBs supposed to be protected? You might think that, as Natural England describes AONBs as “areas of high scenic quality that have statutory protection in order to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of their landscapes”. However, governments always make sure that there is a “but” in any legislation that could otherwise get in the way of anything that they want to do. In the case of AONBs the let-out is that major development is allowed if it is clearly in the national interest and cannot go anywhere else. This is the loophole that will allow HS2 to do the very opposite of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Chilterns.

The Chilterns Conservation Board does not believe that HS2 has been shown to be clearly in the national interest or that it has been demonstrated that it cannot go anywhere else and therefore it opposes the plans.

I believe that the Chilterns is a precious national asset that should be preserved, not just for the locals but for the millions who visit every year in search of beauty, peace and tranquillity. I also believe that this asset is too precious to allow HS2 to carve it up. Where do you stand?

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