21 Jun 2013

Swillington Organic Farm set to be lost to HS2

I've visited Swillington Organic Farm on the edge of Leeds a couple of times in recent weeks. It's a beautiful, unspoilt bit of land which seems to stand for a lot of what politicians talk about when they speak of the need to change how we live, to become greener, to support small family businesses. The animals appear very well cared-for, there's a walled garden where locals grow their own vegetables, the farm hosts school visits and other activities to help people learn new skills and see where their food comes from. I'd say the farm does a lot to benefit the local area.

But it's set to be demolished. The proposed route for the high-speed rail link known as HS2 runs right through the farm. HS2 is being proposed on the basis it will be better for the environment and the economy, bringing other cities closer to London and taking the pressure off the existing transport network. These claims have been strongly questioned by those against the scheme, who think a small fraction of the project's cost would be better spent elsewhere, like by improving the existing infrastructure.

As the world increasingly connects via virtual rather than physical networks - a train journey itself can be time productively spent - the amount of benefit from cutting, say, half-an-hour off a trip certainly seems debatable or even quaint in the digital age.

No doubt there are many other small businesses along the route facing a similar fate. With any new development like this, where it's unavoidable people and businesses will be affected, we have to be wary of nimbyism, of course. But this is actually the opposite - this is stepping back and looking at the big picture, which looks like lots of tiny dots of people and businesses in local communities interconnected by short lines, a picture that will be redrawn with fewer but bigger dots connected by longer lines. Primarily with a bigger flow of people into the capital. This does not seem like an obviously good thing for local communities outside London.

Where I live in the Kirkstall area, across the other side of Leeds from Swillington, you can tell it was once very green. Development has brought lots of benefits - we wouldn't have houses to live in or convenient shops to shop at if we never built anything - but that doesn't mean we don't have choices about how we build. It seems as though our area is becoming more and more a place that people drive to and drive through, a bit like a big Ikea shopping complex in suburb form, with a weird road network designed for traffic not people. It's as though when the big shops moved in, we were blinded by the light of the new jobs and the convenience and we forgot to make sure we also kept a high street. I'm sure Kirkstall's not unusual in that way.

Isn't there a danger we're making the same mistakes all over again? Or do you think HS2 is too important to drop?

It will be a very sad day if this lovely farm is lost to HS2.

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