On The Wrong Track

Kate Barnes originally published this on her blog.

‘Home is where the heart is’ the saying goes, but in parts of the country the ‘heart’ is being ripped out of the ‘home’. HS2 will rip through the heart of The Chilterns destroying an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is not only a blight on the landscape but also a blight on good, hard working people’s lives and homes. Many work in London but live outside as they value the open, green space and a sense of community in which to bring up their children and others chose to live here to simply enjoy the peace and quiet. There are some that run their own small businesses from home and they have major concerns about how this will be sustainable once work on the railway begins and communications become disconnected.

As the NHS GP to some of these people I get to experience first hand the fall-out of this ill-conceived project. It is sobering. I have to pinch myself that this is a project costing in excess of 50 billion pounds at a time when the NHS is failing. The bitter irony is that whilst the Government tries to tackle the problems of an overstretched NHS plans for HS2 are adversely affecting the health of many people who in turn are causing extra pressure by seeking help from their NHS GP.

Hardly a day goes by without a patient presenting with a problem related to the impact of HS2 on their health. This may manifest itself as insomnia due to anxiety and uncertainty. Those whose homes are affected by blight are among the most vulnerable in this respect. I think about one elderly resident who wants to move but can’t. She aptly describes her situation as ‘a death sentence’ hanging over her.

I think about patients with children who happily envisaged a settled rural family life and who now have the prospect of being uprooted, their life put on hold as marital tensions rise with the unwanted, unnecessarily complicated and contradictory paperwork, and any plans of essential maintenance work delayed as well as coping with rather confused children. The anger felt towards politicians for not caring and taking responsibility is now directed towards nearest and dearest at a time when life should be spent carefree enjoying family life.

I also give thought to my middle-aged patients who have created a rural idyll for themselves, as they lovingly tend to their garden, as they walk their dog in the local countryside and who now have to come to terms with the prospect of their house and garden being destroyed, the quiet and beauty of the countryside gone for ever. A prolonged period of noise, dust and fumes will have to be tolerated and will inevitably have negative consequences for the environment. I remember that this is an area of green belt where applications for satellite dishes and small extensions get rejected but somehow the rules can be changed to allow a high speed train to thunder through decimating ancient woodland in its wake.

The ill effects of stress are revealing: a return to cigarettes, a few extra glasses of wine in the evening and increased girth through comfort eating resulting in raised blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack, or diabetes all further draining our health services. These coping mechanisms are habits not easily broken. Days are lost at work and productivity slows down as the stress continues day in day out.

Railroaded into despondency depression sets in as the impending sense of loss becomes realized coupled with the sheer unfairness of it all. The loss is not just of home or money but it manifests itself in other ways: a fragmented loss of a close-knit community, the loss of an area of outstanding natural beauty and disappointingly a sad loss of faith in our major political parties.

The desperation is now written on once stoic faces. My patients have difficult times ahead, they feel violated and must find the energy to move forward but not in their preferred direction. Many find themselves with the prospect of receiving compensation for their blighted property at well below market value.

Visits from family and friends may be put off by the havoc of construction and those that live alone and are socially isolated will be most vulnerable in this respect adding to increased health and social needs. And indeed my visits to the elderly will be challenging. I wonder how I am going to negotiate the construction traffic in a working day which is already overwhelming busy. These patients may not be able to get down to the surgery or pharmacist to get the help and medication they need. How can I reassure them that a community nurse will visit or that in an emergency an ambulance is going to be able to arrive within a certain time frame?

I cannot help but question the justification for HS2 in this digital age and especially at a time when public money needs to be spent on improving national health and social care, and existing rail networks.

I remind myself as I like to remind others that sometimes in life we have to accept that things occur that we have no control over but in situations where we can have control and improve things for common good then it is surely our obligation to review with the knowledge it’s never too late to change plans.

Dr Kate Barnes is a GP in Great Missenden. She does not live in an area affected by HS2.

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