Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport has now announced the final route for the HS2 rail line which will carve its way through some of our most beautiful countryside and require the demolition of many homes so that we can get to Birmingham 15 whole minutes quicker! And it will only cost £32bn – honest. Despite claims of popular support, when faced with loud opposition from those living in its path or near enough to be blighted by it, those who care about our heritage and the environment, rail users, road users, opposition politicians, coalition politicians, Cabinet members, and MPs from their own parties, some important improvements have been wrung out as to the route – some of which have significantly enhanced the prospects for some of our country houses previously affected.
One of the most significant houses to be affected by the initial route was Edgcote House, a glorious, grade-I, Georgian gem, which faced having the main view from the house out over the lake terminated by a not inconsiderable viaduct. However, the new route has moved the line to the east, leaving the lake, and the view, largely preserved. I wonder how much this change was influenced by the prospect of having to pay compensation for ‘statutory blight’ on a multi-million pound house and estate – a possibly more forceful reason, sadly, than just ruining the setting of a fine country house.
More broadly, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, has cautiously welcomed the alteration to the route, though, there are still concerns. Having seen off very early proposals which would have had the route disturb the stunning West Wycombe Park, the later revisions did propose to run the line, with inadequate measures to minimise the impact, rather close to the National Trust’s grade-I Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire. It seems that the powerful voice of the NT has succeeded in increasing the mitigation measures with extended deep cuttings to minimise the visual and sound impact – but it’s certainly not the tunnel they were hoping for.
Another house which has definitely escaped the blight is Shardeloes, also in Buckinghamshire. The route originally ran across the other side of the shallow valley in front of the house on the other side of a main road (which already cuts through the parkland). Although this section was to be in a cutting, under the new plans, the extended tunnelling completely removes the above ground elements near the house.
Of the other houses, Waddesdon Manor was never really going to be affected, the route past Stoneleigh Abbey hasn’t changed, still slicing through the agricultural showground which had already blighted the setting of that fascinating house, nor have there been any changes to the situation for Chetwode Manor. On the positive side, The Vache benefits from the extended tunnel at Chalfont St Giles, and that same tunnel means that the route now sweeps well to the south of Pollard Park House. Grade-II* Doddershall Hall has also gained further protection.
Although it is easy to be sceptical about HS2, I am, in principle, a strong supporter of railways, particularly over domestic flights and more roads. However, where projects of this scale and expense are proposed, it is even more important that the full costs – financial, social, material, and environmental – are fully understood, especially where irreplaceable built heritage will be compromised. Commenting on the changes, Justine Greening said: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites. The revised route offers considerable improvements to communities, with the number of dwellings at risk of land take almost halving and the number experiencing increased noise levels reducing by a third.“.
So, overall, the effects on the country houses nearest the line have largely been removed or minimised. But what seems a shame is that so much energy and expense had to be deployed to achieve this – why were these considerations not taken into account as a matter of course when the initial plans were drawn up? Sadly, it seems that cost pressures demand that civil servants start with the most damaging option and then must be forced to not spoil the nation they are supposed to be looking after. Perhaps, one day, heritage will be valued so highly that such proposals are not even considered. One can always hope.
Full plans: ‘HS2 revised line of route maps‘ [Department for Transport]