French High Speed Railway
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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.
I thought it unlikely that Boris couldn’t see the woods for the trees too, classical education or no. Ye Olde Emglish Nature did do some county “ancient” grassland inventories – there’s one for Lancashire – but these have no cache in England’s National Planning Policy Framework so we rely on Local Wildlife Sites, which there’s no statutory obligation on anyone to maintain and update a register for. I’m told Cumbria’s is now officially defunct as local government looks to square it’s budget by not doing anything that it doesn’t have to by law.
thanks Dave. Yes ye olde Englande fielde unit at the NCC donned their smocks and spotted neckerchiefs back in the 70s to search out nice meadows and produced a lowland grassland inventory. Of course they only focused on what was deemed to be worthy of SSSI designation at the time, and even then missed many significant sites due to lack of resources.
With so little unimproved grassland left – just around 100,000ha in England – compared with 400,000ha ancient woodland – it is essential that the remaining resource is identified and mapped. The AW inventory is such a strong tool for the WdT and local planning authorities. Planners can very simply establish, if they choose to, whether a planning application is going to affect an ancient woodland; whereas this is not possible with ancient or semi-natural grasslands.
Its a bit strong to say that Johnson Père was the architect of the Habitats Directive. The Bern Convention of the CoE and the EU Birds Directive, both 1979, are more likely the forerunners from which the Habitats Directive (1992) was cobbled together, especially copying the Appendices of the Bern Convention for the Annexes of the Directive. In terms of driving the process of recognition for the need of the Directives, that would have been the series of Action Programmes beginning in 1973, the Third 1983-1986 sometimes being credited, although NGOs claim an influence that led to mention of a draft directive during the fourth program 1987-1992. Perhaps Boris has inherited his father’s attention to the “bigger picture” rather than the detail (or truth!).
thanks Mark. Yes the precursors you mention were all milestones along the road the the principle of a Habitats Directive to sit alongside the Birds Directive.
My understanding, from talking to people who were there at the time, is that Johnson pere, as a key player in DG environment at the time, was indeed critical to there being a Habitats Directive at all.
Hallo Miles. My analysis of Boris Johnson goes one step further: yes, he masquerades as a jolly buffoon, with the assumption that people know that beneath the façade he is really a deeply intelligent political philosopher. The bluff is multiple though, because beneath the second façade there really does reside a fool – not however a harmless one, but rather the malicious product of public school and Bullingdon Club, institutions that he has never grown out of. This is perhaps not the most constructive contribution to this debate, but my feeling about this man nevertheless. How about this for a real nightmare scenario for UK wildlife: after the next election a coalition between Conservatives and UKIP with Farage as deputy prime-minister.
Thanks Phil – good to hear from you. You paint a very black picture, but a perfectly realistic one.
Could Boris be Dave to Farage’s Cleggster? What an awful prospect.