It will have escaped few readers' notice that the Government is currently embroiled in a bitter war with rural interest groups over the re-writing of the planning framework. While that conflict currently burns brightly in the foreground, the equally controversial plan to build a High Speed Rail link between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds continues to simmer gently in the shadows. At the Countryside Alliance we are in no doubt that, of the two, it is the HS2 proposal that poses the greater risk to Britain's countryside and those who live in it.
There are many similarities between these two rural flash points. For both the Government is prioritising growth over green spaces, and opponents are being unfairly labelled as Nimbys. However there are some clear differences. Most notably, while reforming the planning rules is largely cost-free, the Coalition has estimated that building the High Speed Rail link will cost upwards of £32 billion and the benefits won't be seen until 2025.
Last month, to coincide with the Government consultation, the Alliance ran a survey of its members who live along the proposed route. Even the most hardcore proponent of the growth agenda would have read the responses and felt a deep sense of compassion for the people whose lives and livelihoods - and those of their families - are being destroyed. It is all very well for people living in the South East or North West to label them as Nimbys, but it is also very easy to forget that these are family homes and businesses being demolished to welcome in a train line for which they will never see any benefit.
It is not even certain that the very areas that are purported to gain from HS2 will see anything near the economic boost the Government claims. Thinktanks and campaign groups ranging from the TaxPayers' Alliance to Friends of the Earth have all shown that the economic case is flawed. Meanwhile studies have estimated that High Speed Rail will cost the South West over 50,000 jobs and 21,000 jobs in Wales; and MPs in the North East have also turned against the huge costs of the project. With the railways already creaking and the national coffers stretched to breaking point, spending even a tenth of the cost of HS2 on upgrading the current system would yield greater benefits for everyone in Britain, cheaperand much sooner.
We also have significant environmental concerns about the High Speed rail proposal. The Countryside Alliance believes that before any large-scale infrastructure project is undertaken, there must be a comprehensive analysis of the implications for the countryside, important wildlife habitats and biodiversity. The initial line between London and Birmingham cuts through the Chilterns - an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). AONB is a national designation intended to protect some of England's finest landscapes, and confers on it the highest level of protection. Any development which would cause damage to an AONB has to be shown to be in the national interest and demonstrate why it cannot be located elsewhere. To the human cost I detailed above, you can add an environmental cost in terms of species, habitats, noise and views, which will permanently and irreparably damage some of Britain's most cherished countryside.
The Countryside Alliance therefore proposes an alternative. Alongside upgrading the current network to electrify the Chiltern Mainline and Cross Country lines, we believe that investing in a nationwide superfast broadband network would deliver the economic returns of HS2, without destroying homes, lives and the environment. Better still, rather than demolishing the rural and semi-rural communities between London and Birmingham, it would be empowering them to grow and invest in the economy.
According to the Commission for Rural Communities, in 2005, England's rural areas hosted at least 476,000 VAT or PAYE registered enterprises. They earned £304 billion and employed 2.96 million people. This represented at least 27% of England's enterprises; 13% of employment, but only 9% of the country's business revenue or turnover. In some rural areas businesses were contributing proportionally less economic output than would be expected thus showing the existence of unfulfilled potential from firms and workforce in rural areas. The lack of broadband or slow internet speeds consistently polls highest as the top concern of rural businesses. There is a wealth of untapped economic potential that is waiting to be given the right tools to grow.
With a programme of rail upgrades and investment in superfast broadband, the Government could deliver the economic growth it desires, for a fraction of the cost of the High Speed Rail 2 project and in a fraction of the time. That's why we say High Speed Broadband, not High Speed Rail.