Roger Ratcliffe on a scheme
that will destroy ancient
woodlands at high speed

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There are loads of contenders for the year that produced Britain’s greatest slide into chaos. You could go all the way back to 1066 and the wholesale slaughter of Anglo-Saxons by Norman invaders, or to 1643 when the English Civil War unleashed division, battles and widespread ruin, or to 1940 when the German Luftwaffe began its UK blitz of London and Birmingham to Hull, York, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.

Since then, thankfully, not one year has come close to being so cataclysmic, but I wonder if in future we might come to see 2016 as at least a tipping point on the way to another national annus horribilis. For it was in 2016 that we decided to proceed with one of the most knowingly destructive projects in our history.

I’m not talking about that one, the outcome of which will be seen by 29 March 2019 and beyond, and which years hence could turn out to be as divisive and impoverishing as the civil war. No, I refer to what I consider to be Brexit-on-Rails as far as the English landscape is concerned. For the HS2 high-speed line connecting London and the Midlands with Leeds and Manchester is another mind-freezingly bonkers piece of conscious self-harm.

By the calculations of the Woodland Trust, 29 ancient woodlands will be destroyed when the line is constructed in phases between 2026 and 2033, while a further 18 of these irreplaceable woods will be indirectly affected.

The 330 miles of line also threaten 65 important wildlife sites, according to the Wildlife Trusts, and regardless of local opposition will be driven through residential areas. The cost of all this destruction is £56 billion, up 71 per cent from the original estimate of £32.7 billion and likely to double, perhaps even treble, in future years. And for what purpose? To cut an hour off train journeys from London to Leeds and Manchester, which will generally benefit the metropolitan elite and do little to bring developments to those deindustrialised areas of the north that are desperately in need of help.

The transport writer and long-time HS2 critic Christian Wolmar believes that, far from attracting jobs away from London, high-speed trains are more likely to encourage London-based businesses to close regional offices once Manchester and Leeds are reachable in just over an hour.

I’ve never underestimated the capacity of politicians to do the wrong thing for people, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they have even less regard for woodpeckers, butterflies and orchids. Their crackpot scheme will make a mockery of half a century of nature conservation in the UK.

I don’t know if you’ve checked the map to see where this line goes but it’s worth having a look on the Woodland Trust’s website. The Trust, in fact, is still in a state of shock at the scale of woodland facing destruction, following details of the HS2 phase 2b from Crewe to Manchester and the West Midlands to Leeds being revealed in October. The amount of ancient woods to be lost is double what had been expected.

Many of the trees that will be felled are well over a century old. If you find their loss abhorrent you can register your objection with HS2 through the Trust’s website before 21 December.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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