On the eve of the Covid-19 lockdown, many people instinctively sought solace in our countryside, open spaces and seashores. Sadly, it was the wrong action in these troubled times, for there were breaches of necessary social distancing rules, but it spoke of a very deep emotional bond between individuals and the natural world.
This is not the moment to be debating the rights and wrongs of High Speed 2 – a project on the cards for ten years and given the ‘go’ in February 2020, rather than the ‘no go’ which I think would have been the choice of my constituents in Chesham & Amersham and many others elsewhere. For many, despite mitigation, HS2 will scar the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a protected landscape where construction will affect our chalk streams (a globally rare environment), irreplaceable ancient woodlands and the habitats of many rare species.
Two years ago, I made the plea that the Chilterns should become a National Park and in 2019 the Landscape Review endorsed this proposal. It would be the closest National Park to London, giving this vulnerable landscape added protections. I hope the Government will act quickly to introduce this measure.
Having been a Cabinet Minister at the time the Natural Capital Committee was set up – an independent body advising on the ‘natural goods’ which are of benefit to us as a society from the natural world and its assets – I am concerned that this aspect should not be forgotten.
As individuals we derive a huge amount of well-being from our natural environment. We should indeed seek to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Yet the actions of the Government itself, in approving major infrastructure projects like HS2, can put a complex ecosystem at risk. Activities frowned upon by any other developer in any other context – felling mature trees and the netting of hedgerows at the time when wild birds are nesting – have been very damaging.
The Rivers Chess and Misbourne in my constituency are a case in point. Some of the first letters I ever received after being elected in 1992 were about these rivers and the way low flows impacted on the landscape. Climate change, population growth and water abstraction affect them. Recently, we’ve learned that HS2 construction will require 8.5 megalitres of water per day. I’ve called on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee to launch an urgent inquiry into the degradation of our chalk streams.
Ironically, some of the mitigations for HS2 have already failed, such as the planting of new trees, which subsequently died because they were not watered enough. That’s a shocking indictment of neglect and not a good omen for the future.
We must value our countryside, and protect it for the generations to come.
Dame Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham