Simon Watkins CMLI asks whether HS2 should prompt us to consider a more intelligent way to improve the UK’s economic and environmental resilience.

Artist impression of High Speed Rail train
Artist impression of High Speed Rail train

From 2026, we’ll have a shiny new way to travel between London and Birmingham across a country that is, by the Prime Minister’s concise but enlighteningly descriptive term, ‘shrunk’.

It’s never been satisfactorily explained to me why a silver bullet such as a high-speed rail network addresses the economic needs and circulatory challenges of the UK. What should people in the South West make of £32bn being spent on a facility that channels more traffic between London and the Midlands?

How should folk in East Anglia feel about this new connection, which might reach Leeds but totally bypass them? The line will rattle past significant towns and cities like Coventry, reducing the amenity of and accessibility to adjacent countryside for their inhabitants, while offering nothing but the prospect of becoming unconnected backwaters – for, according to the economic logic used by the proponents of the scheme, it’s connectivity that matters.  Surely the distribution of economic benefits is questionable?

There are capacity issues on the railway and on the road system. These are widespread, affecting major towns and cities throughout the country, and are not, as a rule, contingent solely upon the relationship of each settlement to London, but do affect the economic performance and quality of life of each area. What might a more dispersed investment of £32bn look like, and how might a wider range of local issues be addressed?

It is argued that high-speed rail is a feature of the continental economy – the UK needs it in order to compete. But the distances across the continent are much greater, so that high-speed connections between disparate regions are actually a useful component of the continental transport network. The potential reductions to journey times in the UK are far less significant. To propose such a grandiose scheme on the basis of competition, despite facing quite different circumstances and constraints to our ‘competitors’ looks like either idealism or spectacular political vanity.

In the ongoing debate, economic and transport issues will dominate and will continue to pit the supposed benefits in those areas against the undoubted risks to the quality of the Chiltern landscape (along with other equally important but possibly less high profile issues such as damage to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). However, this concentration on one fragment of the route is unhelpful, precisely because it enables policy makers to dismiss opponents’ concerns as parochial nimbyism.

The quality of the landscape, access to it, and its continuing role in supporting the food, energy, health and welfare needs of society, is, however, a far more vital issue in both this debate and all questions of national policy.  Whether within an AONB or not, the setting within which people live and the open countryside available to those who live in urban areas appear to take a low priority in national decision making.

We will, as a profession, be co-opted into normalising this one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructural and economic planning, by confirming the acceptability of the destruction of areas of less ‘valuable’ countryside and by devising means of ‘integrating’ the thing into the landscape.

Our observations that this represents an irreversible diminution of local landscape character and capacity will go unnoticed and our attempts to secure reasonable proposals to mitigate all significant effects will be met with tokens to address the ‘worst effects’. In spite of best endeavours to absorb large-scale components into the landscape or to use them as opportunities to create new character, the amenity and multi-functionality of landscape is an inevitable casualty of major infrastructure development.

A proposal as significant and potentially destructive as HS2 should prompt us to consider whether this ongoing atomisation of character, functionality, visual amenity and tranquility are acceptable outcomes for the landscape of a ‘shrunken’ nation, and whether there might be more intelligent and creative ways to improve our economic and environmental resilience both nationally and locally.

Simon Watkins is a freelance landscape architect

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the Landscape Institute.



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