And the winner is …

I have a small list of television programmes that I try to watch every week, and one of my especial favourites is the BBC 1 TV Countyfile programme. Bearing in mind the general tone of the blogs that I post on this site, I guess that will come as no great surprise. I particularly enjoy the, usually, weekly reports from Adam Henson about activities on and in connection with his mixed farm in the Cotswolds.

I had an extra-special reason for catching it this Sunday just past, as I had been told that the episode would include an announcement that the Cubbington veteran pear tree had been elected England’s Tree of the Year by a public on-line ballot organised by the Woodland Trust. You may recall that I appealed for votes for the Cubbington tree in my blog Cubbington goes national (posted 23 Sep 2015); judging by the huge vote that our tree secured – around a third of all votes cast and more than twice the number for the nearest rival – you did just that in some number. I wish that I could claim that this was all the result of my blog, but I can’t envisage that my words achieve anything like the necessary reach. Far more effective, I suspect, was the tremendous support from Stop HS2 and the network of concerned folk who spread the word. I am extremely grateful to all of them and to everyone who voted for the Cubbington tree.

I am sure that I am justified in assuming that the tremendous support that our tree secured is due to the sentence of death by HS2 that hangs over it. Many who voted for the tree, I feel certain, were following my suggestion in Cubbington goes national that so doing would send a signal to the Government that it needs to take better care of our natural environment. The economic gains that have been claimed for the HS2 project cannot be justification for unbridled environmental devastation. The current HS2 plans would unnecessarily destroy not only our veteran tree, but many other trees and hectares of woodland, including much that is irreplaceable ancient woodland, and our tree, now crowned “England’s Tree of the Year”, serves as a symbol for all of that destruction.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. Certainly, the Cubbington tree, and the ancient woodland that is growing alongside it, could be saved and still allow HS2 to proceed by replacing the currently-planned cutting by a bored tunnel – an alternative that HS2 Ltd has agreed is perfectly feasible, but is not prepared to finance. Judging by the evidence that I have heard offered to the HS2 Select Committee, it would appear that, given the will, solutions can be found to avoid much other environmental damage along the route. I don’t regard the Government’s refusal to countenance these alternatives as remotely acceptable and find myself in full agreement with the view of Mr Speaker Bercow, reported in my blog Speaker’s corner, part 1 (posted 29 Oct 2015), that “if there is a price to be paid to minimise the impact, that price should without question be paid”.

The HS2 Select Committee has recently heard from numerous residents of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) who have demonstrated how much they care for and cherish the special environment in which they live. Owners of property within the AONB suffer, apparently for the most part gladly, considerable restrictions upon their freedom to maintain and enhance their buildings as the result of a planning regime designed, rightly, to protect the exceptional, and distinct, nature of the Chilterns landscape. These restrictions serve little purpose however if the Government is willing to sanction damaging development within the AONB on the pretext that it is in the national interest, as has been the case with HS2.

Whilst there have undeniably been some changes that serve to lessen the impacts of HS2 upon the AONB over the life of the project – for example, the Government voluntarily introduced a Chilterns tunnel early in 2012 and subsequently, under pressure from the Select Committee, agreed to a short extension to that tunnel this year – these impacts remain unacceptably high and insufficiently mitigated and are a sad reflection upon the Government’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the AONB, a responsibility that is enshrined in its own policy.

It is also stated Government policy to “avoid losses of ancient woodland and veteran trees” (see footnote 1). You might feel, from consulting the list of ancient woodland lost to HS2 Phase 1 that I provided for my blog It should be child’s play, part 2 (posted 15 Sep 2015), that, in this case, the Government has not tried very hard to follow this policy (see footnote 2). Despite admitting every time that a loss of this habitat is identified in the Environmental Statement that it is “irreplaceable”, the view appears to be that all that needs to be done is to stick a few twigs in the ground and spread some excavated ancient woodland soil around and all will be well. Well we need to raise our voices to say that it won’t, and that this blatant disregard for the care of our natural legacy to future generations is just not good enough.

Winning the England’s Tree of the Year contest brings automatic entry into the 2016 European Tree of the Year competition. The publicity associated with these two competitions should give us excellent opportunities to make a wider audience aware of the damage that HS2, in its current form would inflict on the UK’s stock of ancient woodland and veteran trees. I realise, however, that merely making people aware is not enough; public opinion must be converted into public pressure on the Government to do much more to reduce the impacts of HS2.

I feel, having asked for and received a public display of support for the Cubbington tree, a daunting sense of responsibility to mobilise this support. The Cubbington Action Group against HS2 has at its heart a small team of dedicated, but battle-weary, folk, who are totally inexperienced in mounting a national public campaign, and we have very limited resources. Nevertheless, I feel sure that support will be willingly offered by those within our national campaign who are better equipped to take advantage of the opportunity that our victory affords – we have already been cheered by the encouragement and backing that we have received from Stop HS2 and feel sure that this will continue.

It has also been very gratifying in the past to know that the expertise and moral support on offer from the Woodland Trust is freely available. I hope that the Trust will be able to use the Cubbington tree as a focus for its own campaigning against the destruction of our ancient woodland heritage.

Footnotes:

  1. See the Strategy Objectives on page 11 of the joint Defra/Forestry Commission publication Keepers of Time.
  2. The list identifies thirty-seven ancient woodland areas that would suffer direct loss to HS2, of which three are saved by the Chilterns tunnel extension now agreed.
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4 responses to this post.

  1. Down in Euston we’re really happy that the Cubbington Pear tree has won the Tree of the Year award. At our behest Camden Council featured it in their HS2 newsletter! We hope people will also think of the 200 or so mature trees that are earmarked for destruction in Camden (many of which are irreplaceable unpolllarded Grade A London Plane trees), when they read your blog. The loss of these fine, tall and pollution-absorbing trees is especially sad because whilst many street trees in London are now butchered back to stumps every year by arboricultural contractors – the ones in and around Euston are some of the few that have not undergone this torture.
    Camden Cutting Group

    Reply

    • Thanks Luisa. As a London-raised lad myself I appreciate how important urban trees are. Many of the London Planes are magnificent specimens and deserve to be recognised as very special trees. I had no idea that so many mature trees growing in London are at risk from HS2 – it is quite shocking. It has always been my intention that the Cubbington tree should be a representative all trees that are at risk from HS2, and to use the publicity generated by the comtest win to urge the Government to rethink its attitude towards the imoacts of HS2 on our natural environment. However, reading my blog again, I feel that I could, with some justification, be accused of thinking only in terms of woods and trees in a countryside setting and of neglecting the important contribution that urbam trees make to our environment. For that I owe you, and all other environmentally-caring residents of our two big cities that would be served by HS2 Phase 1, an apology.
      By the way, good luck to all petitioners from the Camden area for your upcoming appearances in front of the HS2 Select Committee

      Reply

  2. Posted by LesF on November 10, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Congratulations Peter on getting your Cubbington peartree chosen as Tree of the Year. I don’t know if it was you or the Woodland Trust or the Coventry Tree Wardens who prompted me to vote for it, but in any case it’s gratifying to have backed a winner after so many years campaigning against the bizarre HS2.
    There’s no need for a tunnel under Cubbington or for trees (or anything else) to be destroyed in Camden; the alternative High Speed UK will do everything HS2 promised, and much more, for less cost and with less environmental damage. See http://www.highspeeduk.com. There’s a presentation of HSUK in Birmingham on 5th December that you and your readers can attend. Contact me for details. You can give my email address to anyone who asks.

    Reply

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