Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: The final word on HS2 (plus about 20 million others, too)


It makes Gibbon’s six-volume Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire look like a postcard. The weight of the printed version is likely to be equivalent to that of a Toyota Aygo car.

This is the Department of Transport’s official Environmental Impact Assessment of the High-Speed 2 (HS2) rail link. And it’s a monster! A massive, Brobdingnagian colossus of a document, the like of which has never emerged from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office before and you can only hope never will again.

The Woodland Trust, which will be scouring its 50,000 pages for threats to ancient trees and wildlife habitats, has calculated that to absorb it within a consultation period of just 60 days is about the same as reading the whole of War And Peace 30 times, or once every two days (a task which would presumably make it possible to recite large chunks of Tolstoy’s great novel by heart).

Hard copies needed by affected communities will have to be delivered by truck. The digital version is an awe-inspiring eight gigabytes.

Burrowing into the labyrinthine entrails of this behemoth of a Department of Transport document yesterday, when it was published, shortly after the formal first reading in the Commons of the High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill (a process that by contrast took about 45 secwonds), it was possible to see why.

It used to be said that the London telephone directory had no plot but some great characters. This has little in the way of characters but a lot of plot – namely the Government’s determination to drive through the first phase of HS2 in the face of widespread angst – and lot of landscape.

A kind of Domesday Book of the chosen route, a mind-bendingly detailed survey of fields, hedgerows, dwellings and ancient heritage, natural and man-made, likely to be affected by the initial phase of modernising Britain’s railway system.

Take this random extract from the Waddesdon-Quainton section of the line in Buckinghamshire, locus of some of the fiercest opposition to the project: “A small element of the ridge and furrow earthworks, to the north of the Cranwell Farm driveway, will be removed. The best-preserved examples of ridge and furrow earthworks, and the evidence of tofts and crofts, will not, however, be impacted.”

Tofts and crofts? You can’t help worrying that reading this will be made an even longer process by the need to consult a dictionary. (Toft, it turns out, was the medieval land used for building; croft was for pasture or arable land).

That passage was 40 words. Given that the total is around 20 million words, you can understand why the Woodland Trust – which has employed someone full time for the purpose – believes there may not be time to read the thing.