500 year landscape at Misbourne Valley at risk from HS2

From Cheryl Gillan’s speech in a Parliamentary debate on the Protection of Ancient Woodland and Trees, 10th December 2015

What a pleasure it is to have my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) be successful in securing the debate. I congratulate her not only on securing it, but on the way in which she introduced the subject. She is, of course, a new Member of the House. She has worked with the National Farmers Union for a while and is a trustee of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. However, she also brought her skills as a journalist to her powerful descriptions, as she walked us through the wonderlands of her childhood. She reminded me of my childhood in Wales, when I used to be taken for holidays to my uncle’s farm near Usk and I would play in the woodlands, which were charmingly called the Dingle. I used to think that I could get lost in those woods, and that nobody could find me—but the Dingle was a pretty small standing of trees, so I reckon that if someone had been really looking for me, they would have been able to find me.

I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend introduced the subject, because I seem to have been in touch with the Woodland Trust, which we are all so proud of, for at least 22 of my 23 years in the House. I need to declare an interest in that under her chairmanship, I am a vice-chair of the all-party group on ancient woodland and veteran trees, and I am pleased to be so…

Our woodlands are not just places to visit. I also have in my constituency some 72 acres of woodland that is now the GreenAcres woodland burials site. It is a living, active woodland in which burials are taking place and where people can appreciate the peace, quiet, tranquillity and elements of nature that contribute to the end-of-life experience for their loved ones, which I think makes it a very special place. We must remember that we are talking not about fossilised bits of land or areas that we are protecting just out of stubbornness, but about living woods that right up to this day provide a service to the community.

That is why I feel so passionate about the woodlands that are being affected by HS2. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane referred to HS2, and I would not speak in a debate such as this without referring to HS2. It is predictable, but that does not make it any the less important. The Government really need to listen to the issues being raised about the destruction of woodland through the development of infrastructure. None of us here is a philistine. We want infrastructure to be built. We want this country to progress. We want a solid and firm economy. However, that must not be at the price of some of our most fragile and precious landscapes, which is what is happening with HS2.

Having said that, I have some praise, not particularly for the Government but certainly for the HS2 hybrid Bill Committee, because it has granted yet another extension to the Chilterns tunnel. The Minister should know that that extension means that Mantle’s wood, Sibley’s coppice and Farthings wood have all been saved from the bulldozer. Sitting in the middle of Mantle’s wood, I shed a tear when I thought that HS2 was going to devastate and demolish most of that wood, which people have been walking in for centuries. However, the area of outstanding natural beauty that is most of my constituency is still exposed to HS2. Jones’ Hill wood, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), will lose about 0.7 hectares. Although the impact has been reduced by the plans currently on the drawing board, it will still be affected. Other ancient woodlands in the AONB will be indirectly affected by the works or are directly adjacent to the construction boundary and will be damaged. I am referring to Jenkins wood, Havenfield wood, Stockings wood and Oaken corner.

A Government who have been rightly trumpeting their environmental credentials should now step up to the plate and ensure that they go the whole mile and protect the whole of the AONB and those ancient woodlands against HS2. That may cost a little more, but the costs are in doubt and arguable. It is possible from an engineering standpoint and certainly desirable to tunnel the whole of HS2 under the AONB and come out without damaging the AONB, as will be the case with the current plans.

I have some amazing constituents who have been working on the issue of HS2. It is always an unequal battle, because whereas the Government have access to taxpayers’ money and have already spent some £14.5 million on legal fees alone—paying lawyers—on HS2, my constituents, who after all are only fighting to protect their homes, land and businesses and the environment of the Chiltern hills, have to raise every penny voluntarily. There is no Heritage Lottery Fund for them. There are no grants coming from any esteemed bodies. They have to raise every single penny and pay out of their back pockets not only for the luxury of being heard at the petition stage in the hybrid Bill Committee—they all have to pay £20 to put their piece of paper in—but to get the advice that they need.

One of my constituents is a tremendous landscape historian. Alison Doggett has studied a 500-year-old map and revealed that the Misbourne valley, across which HS2 will slash a swathe, has barely changed since medieval times. She described her work in an article called “A Lost Valley?” in the May 2014 edition of the BBC’s Countryfile magazine, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, from her previous life, is familiar with. The ancient map was drawn up in 1620 for Dame Mary Wolley, who owned the Chequers estate, which in those days included the northern part of the Misbourne valley. Nowadays, as everyone knows, Chequers is the Prime Minister’s rural retreat. It is vastly diminished. The current boundaries of the estate do not encompass the original, historical boundaries of the older Chequers estate.

Alison’s comparison of the field boundaries, woodlands, lanes and farmsteads as depicted in 1620 has shown that in many cases very little has changed. Thanks to the good stewardship of the people who have lived in the area and worked the land, and its status as part of a nationally protected landscape—the AONB—since 1965, any visitor today will find the valley very little changed from 1620. Unfortunately, the merits of good stewardship and national protection through the AONB have been ignored by the HS2 project. I therefore ask that the Minister and his Department, which is crucial to the protection of our environment, ask the Department for Transport to step up to the plate, protect that AONB and go for the long tunnel, which will protect the ancient woodlands to which I have referred so that they are still a valuable part of the landscape.

I will give Alison Doggett the last word, because her article concludes:

“Landscapes are granted protected status for characteristics that make them unique. The protection ensures we tread lightly so that we may share the landscapes with future generations, just as past generations shared them with us. We need to ask why protections on historical landscapes are being overturned. Is this trampling of our rural inheritance part of a bigger picture: a calculated indifference to the value of countryside in the name of progress?”

I hope that the answer to that question is no and that the Minister’s Department will go and champion the area of outstanding natural beauty and our ancient woodlands in the Chilterns.

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