French High Speed Railway
By VincentdeMorteau (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Last week Mayor of London Boris Johnson had an extended and I have to say very interesting interview published in Total Politics magazine (thankfully still free online). I recommend you read it – or at least skim it – as it gives an insight into the man who could well be the next leader of the Tory Party and/or future Prime Minister.
One particular comment he made about HS2 (about which I wrote about last Sunday) has landed him in hot water with the conservation lobby. Boris was complaining that HS2 was being opposed by people using the environment as a false flag for their real objections, which related to fears their land or houses would lose value.
“People are in the humiliating position of having to pretend that there’s some environmental objection that they have, that the great crested grebe is going to be invaded or whatever,” Mr Johnson said.
“What they care about is their house prices. It’s tragic we have protest groups talking about ‘this ancient woodland’ when actually there’s no tree in this country that’s more than 200 years old…most mature trees die at about the age of my age, the average life expectancy of a tree can’t be more than about 60 years. There aren’t that many ancient woodlands around is the point I’m trying to make.
“It’s b******s. They’re not campaigning for forests, they’re not campaigning for butterflies. They pretend to be obviously, but what they’re really furious about is that their house prices are getting it.”
He said that the Government should handle the project “in the way they do in France” by going to every household on the route and paying “top dollar for all their property”.
Naturally the Woodland Trust were seething. They had seen Boris as their friend, with his plan to plant millions of trees in London. How could he be so ignorant – dissing ancient woodland in such a fulsome way?
In some ways Boris is right – the trees in an ancient woodland are often not as old as the wood itself – most standards and maidens are no older than 150 years. He exaggerates for effect of course, and ignores the ancient coppice stools many hundreds of years old, with 70 or even 100 year old stems on them. He is not a woodland geek. Most ancient trees are in wood-pasture, parkland, cemeteries or occasionally standing alone in fields or on hillsides.
800 year old oak tree – but it’s in a park, not ancient wood. (c) Miles King
There is also a problem here. The Woodland Trust and others have sought to create a Totem of Ancient Woodland; something that must be sacrosanct. This is a risky tactic, because ancient woodlands will continue to be lost, though the rate of loss has slowed to a snails pace since the dark days in the middle of the 20th century when many large woods were grubbed out for agriculture. I would suggest that other habitat loss – ancient grassland for example – continues to happen at a far greater pace now, with little fanfare. Although of course I was pleased to see The Wildlife Trusts raise this in their recent mini-campaign. Ancient grasslands (and others of great value which aren’t as old) still have no functional inventory, when we know the location of every ancient woodland, practically down to the smallest fragment – even ones which have been comprehensively transformed, but still sit on their ancient footprint. I digress.
The Wildlife Trusts were less inclined to unleash the attack dogs and as far as I can see made no comment. After all, they agree with Boris that a cycle superhighway should run alongside HS2.
Boris, beneath his shambling bumbling image, is an arch, some might say Machiavellian, political operator. He is certainly no fool – he knows perfectly well that trees can live longer than him. His father was the architect of the Habitats Directive – and that type of knowledge slips seamlessly, unconsciously, from one generation to another.
His aim was clear – “divide and rule”. Drive a wedge between those who do fear their houses will be worthless, or their farmland will start to come down in price from it already astral levels; and those who fear for the environmental damage that HS2 will inevitably cause.
I think the ancient woodland/ old trees issue is not the important point. In France they have a large network of HS2’s right across the country (run mainly on nuclear generated electricity), along with a large network of 2 lane motorways. There is very little opposition from landowners to this infrastructure, because they pay very generous compensation for loss of land or amenity.
Taking this approach would take the “nimbys” as he calls them (not my phrase) out of the equation, they being the objectors who are motivated by financial values. That would leave the “environmental” objectors.
As I said last week, I think the opportunity to create a large area of contiguous wild land along the route of HS2 will not come along again for a long time. If HS2 does go ahead, then it is right to make the best of the opportunity, accepting that there will be environmental costs.