Usel ES s, part 2

(… continued from Usel ES s, part 1, posted on 19 Nov 2014).

In this second part of this short series I will report on the response by Peter Miller, Head of Environment and Planning for HS2 Ltd, and counsel, Tim Mould QC, to the criticisms about HS2 Ltd’s approach to environmental impact assessment (EIA) and alleviation, both carried out to date and planned in future, that had been made by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust in front of the HS2 Phase 1 Commons Select Committee at its session held on the morning of Wednesday 22nd October (see footnote).

In the previous part of this series I identified ten points of issue raised by the Trust.

The first concerned the incompleteness of the data used for the EIA, where it was pointed out in response that the Trust had been “involved by the project in the preparation of the scheme” – hopefully “involvement” indicates that HS2 Ltd took some notice of the input from the Trust, unlike the “engagement” with the rest of us where our input was ignored. Mr Miller said that he felt the data that had been used was “pretty good”, but he did accept that there was “other information around” that had not been used. The olive branch offered here was that HS2 Ltd “recognised that there are some gaps” in the survey information and that HS2 Ltd was seeking “to redress” these and would be bringing forward supplementary environmental information to the Committee in due course. He also assured the Committee that HS2 Ltd would “continue to seek” the help of the Trust as the scheme develops.

On the matter of the missing mammal species, the second point in my list of issues raised by the Trust, Mr Miller was not very forthcoming. He attributed the omission of pine marten as due to the data assessment being confined to a five-kilometre corridor and deer were dismissed as “common mammals” upon which HS2 was “unlikely to give rise to significant effects”, but that was about it – not much in the way of an olive branch for this issue then, but Mr Miller did offer to “come back with a note on that”.

There wasn’t much give on improving on the “no net loss” policy either. Mr Miller reaffirmed that the “objective is to seek no net loss to biodiversity” and cited the reason for this as there being “no known policy for going to a net gain”, presumably referring to the Government’s position. He did concede however that Natural England and Defra are considering a change to this policy and ventured that “it may well be the case that, in the fullness of time, the Government policy will change in that light and the project would need to consider its position at that point”. He did offer, in a particularly incoherent – even by Mr Miller’s standards – few sentences to look to do better in the detailed design, citing the “quality of biodiversity” as something that could be addressed. In the contrast to this slight, albeit very slight, glimmer of hope of doing better than no net loss, he gave no ground at all on doing anything other than determining the no net loss on a route-wide basis.

Mr Miller didn’t address Ms Dewey’s observation that there should be a “mechanism” to address any biodiversity deficit that may emerge as the project progresses, and he had to be reminded of this under cross-examination. More vague words were mouthed by Mr Miller, thankfully though he did also offer what he described as a “short answer”, which was “yes, we can talk about that and see how that can actually operate, so that we get to that no-net-loss balance”.

Mr Miller was totally silent on four important points that Ms Dewey had raised: that there was the potential for improving the efficiency of offsetting by using land off-route; that offsetting should include the restoration of ancient woodland and local wildlife sites; that HS2 Ltd had apparently failed to employ green infrastructure principles; and that HS2 Ltd had not employed connectivity mapping to determine the best mitigation solutions.

On the matter of ensuring that arrangements are put in place to manage and monitor habitat created or altered due to HS2, Mr Miller offered some hope. He reported that discussions were taking place with Warwickshire County Council, as lead authority, that were “particularly looking at biodiversity issues”. He said that HS2 Ltd was “setting out plans or giving more detail and understanding of the monitoring and management regime, which will come forward”, that these plans will “bring in ecological groups” and that Staffordshire Wildlife Trust will “be involved in that particular process”.

Finally, Mr Miller confirmed that HS2 Ltd accepted in principle the need for an independent body to monitor progress against biodiversity aims, but did not accept that any such body should have the power of enforcement. He was not able to offer any details of a proposal in this respect, as the “details have got to be worked through”, but he expected that HS2 Ltd will have got its “plan in order” before the proceedings of the Select Committee are completed.

Summarising the position on the ten points that I have identified:

  • Four were ignored by Mr Miller.
  • Two were, to all intents and purposes, rejected.
  • One may be resolved by the supplementary Environmental Statement due to be published next year.
  • One is something that HS2 Ltd is prepared to discuss further.
  • Two are matters that are being discussed at the moment, and for which proposals are expected to follow at some time.

On the basis of that analysis you may think that the Chairman of the Select Committee, Robert Syms MP, was perhaps a little optimistic in his summing up:

  1. CHAIR: Although you had a big ask, I think some of the questions can at least be partly answered and it seems you don’t seem that far apart. We need more of an exchange of information, and I’m sure that the discussions will take place. Order, order. Thank you.

(To be concluded …)

Footnote: The promoter’s response to the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust begins at paragraph 341 in the transcript and at about 11.24am in the video.

Important Note: The document from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

Usel ES s, part 1

At the end of my blog An uplifting tale (posted 15 Nov 2014) I mentioned that, so far, we have seen two chartered environmentalists appear before the HS2 Select Committee expressing doubts about the quality of the environmental work that HS2 Ltd has carried out.

The first such witness was Kate Dewey, Planning and Conservation Officer for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, who appeared before the Committee on the morning of Wednesday 22nd October in support of the Trust’s petition. She was led through her evidence by Emyr Thomas, Partner at Sharpe Pritchard and Parliamentary Agent, and both were complimented by Committee Member Sir Peter Bottomley MP who said that the “presentation and the questions of the witness” had been “exemplary”, and he hoped that others would use it as a model because it had been “relevant and precise”.

The Staffordshire Wildlife Trust hearing starts at paragraph 191 in the transcript and at about 10.48am in the video. In her evidence Ms Dewey identified the following points of issue with the environmental assessment and mitigation proposals in the HS2 Phase 1 Environmental Statement:

  • That HS2 Ltd has not used all of the available ecological data in its works to date. Ms Dewey gave examples of sources of data, including planning applications, that had not be accessed by HS2 Ltd.
  • That there are a number of important mammal species that have not been assessed in the Environmental Statement, including brown hare, polecat, hedgehog and some species of deer, contrary to HS2 Ltd’s own methodology statement, and that no explanation has been provided for these omissions. Ms Dewey also advised that, although there were records of pine marten in the general area around the proposed HS2 route, this species was not mentioned in the Environmental Statement.
  • That the policy of seeking to achieve no net loss of biodiversity is “not what an exemplar project should be aiming it”. The Trust agrees with the Commons Environmental Audit Committee that HS2 Ltd should be aiming for a net gain. The Trust is also seeking an assurance that the line-wide calculation of loss/gain will not result in concentrations of mitigation in certain areas to the detriment of others, and that any outputs from the community and environment fund would not be included in the calculation.
  • That there appears to be no mechanism proposed to address any net losses in biodiversity that may emerge as the project progresses.
  • That the concentration of offsetting measures within the land limits of the hybrid Bill may not be the most effective way of redressing biodiversity loss. The Trust is of the opinion that some alternative locations for habitat compensation “could actually perform a lot better” and encounter less opposition from landowners.
  • That ancient woodland and local wildlife sites should be restored, as part of the HS2 scheme – I was especially pleased to hear the Trust promoting this alternative approach to habitat offsetting as it is a particular bee in my bonnet (see my blog Enter Prince Charming, stage right, part 1, posted 15 May 2014) and is something that I intend to put to the Select Committee myself.
  • That, despite professing to adopt “green infrastructure” principles there is no indication so far that HS2 Ltd has employed these principles in the design of the railway.
  • That HS2 Ltd has not employed connectivity mapping to determine the best mitigation solutions. This technique has also been employed by Warwickshire County Council to critique the proposals in the Environmental Statement, and I will consider this further in my next posting.
  • That no information has been provided on how management and monitoring of habitats in perpetuity is to be secured and funded. The Trust wants HS2 Ltd to publish and consult, as soon as possible, on a draft scheme to secure this.

The Trust also echoed the Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s proposal that an independent body be set up for HS2 to monitor and report publicly on progress against biodiversity aims and enforce remedial measures. Whilst HS2 Ltd had responded positively to the Trust on this matter, the Trust feels that the proposals made lack teeth, particularly on enforcement.

As you might expect, the case was presented by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust convincingly and with authority, and was well supported by relevant evidence.

The response from HS2 Ltd was provided, in the greater part, by evidence given by the Head of Environment and Planning for HS2 Ltd, Peter Miller. I think that it is fair to characterise this response as generally conciliatory, rather than the more confrontation stance that we have seen HS2 Ltd take with some petitioners. I think that this was a wise course, as to try and face off the Trust would surely have been a risky strategy. However, most of the olive branches that Mr Miller felt able to offer to the Trust were expressed in general terms, rather than as substantive proposals.

But I think that we’d better leave that until my next posting.

(To be continued …)

Important Note: The document from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

An uplifting tale

One petitioner who appeared before the HS2 Select Committee recently, a certain Mr J D Silverwood, appeared to charm the pants off the five Members present. He also charmed and impressed me. Some of us who claim to be concerned about protecting our natural environment content ourselves with posting blogs about it; Mr Silverwood has actually done something, well actually quite a lot, to preserve and improve the countryside in a small patch in the Trent Valley.

His hearing in front of the Committee may be found from paragraph 122 onwards in the transcript, and from about 10.28am in the video.

He told the Committee that he felt very much out of his depth, as it had been sixty years since his last visit to London. He set out his personal credo:

“I have always been interested in nature, in conservation and farming but it wasn’t until the 1970s that I actually made myself a promise and that promise was that I would endeavour, insofar as I would be capable, with land over which I might have some influence, that I would leave this planet earth at the end of my human existence better than when I arrived in 1934.”

Mr Silverwood has found a practical way to improve at least a small part of planet earth, whilst enriching the lives of the “less abled”. In 1987 he set off on a 7,000 mile round Britain coastal walk to raise money, which he used to set up the Combined Handicapped and Disabled Society (CHADS). This society aims to “make nature available” to all, but specifically those who are not able to access it for themselves, and does this by providing facilities especially laid out and adapted for the needs of the less abled in Lichfield and for the surrounding areas”.

Since these early beginnings, Mr Silverwood has spent 25 years “totally committed” to the promise that he made to himself. He said that he had “planted personally something like 10,000 trees” and that “a similar amount have been planted by other people”. Much of this effort has gone into 24 ha of flood plain, purchased from British Coal in the early 1990s, that has become Trentside Meadows Nature Reserve. The hard work has been rewarded by the reserve being granted the status of Site of Biological Importance (SBI) Grade 1 by Lichfield District Council.

The great tragedy of this otherwise uplifting story is that, if the consultation route for Phase 2 of HS2 is confirmed, the track will run straight across Trentside Meadows on a viaduct, and in Mr Silverwood’s words “virtually the whole of that site will be irrelevant from a nature point of view”.

I think that this tale confirms that Mr Silverwood can justly claim to be an environmentalist, albeit a practical rather than academic one. So I was interested to hear him express his views on the environmental competence of HS2 Ltd, which he described as “cynicism”. He recounted what had happened on a recent visit to his society’s premises by a deputation of four from HS2 Ltd, of which one was an “environmentalist”. He said that when the visitors were returning from being taken to see Trentside Meadows the environmentalist had misidentified a guelder rose as cranberry. Mr Silverwood’s reaction to this display of lack of plant knowledge was one of “despair” at the “degree of competence by the environmentalists who are running the show”.

Now you may regard this as homespun philosophy and, perhaps, a trifle unfair on the unnamed HS2 Ltd representative, but subsequent to Mr Silverwood’s comment, we have seen two chartered environmentalists appear before the Committee also expressing doubts about the environmental work that has been carried out by HS2 Ltd, but you will have to wait until my next posting for more on that.

Important Note: The document from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

Something to look forward to

Most of us will not have personal experience of a major construction project being carried out on our doorsteps, and may not fully appreciate, therefore, what HS2 may have in store for us. This was not the case, however, for a petitioner who appeared before the HS2 Select Committee recently; she was able to describe the trauma that having to live close to a railway construction site can bring.

The lady giving evidence was Mrs Marion Sadler, the owner and occupier with her husband of a farmhouse and land near Handsacre in Staffordshire – you may recognise Handsacre as the location where it is planned Phase 1 of HS2 would interconnect with the West Coast Main Line (WCML). Mr and Mrs Sadler had come to Westminster to present their petition to the Committee, along with the petition deposited by Mrs Doreen Round, Mrs Sadler’s mother. The farmhouse was divided into two parts in 1990, and later extended, to provide separate dwellings for the Sadler family and Mrs Round.

Although compensation is not the subject of today’s blog, I should mention in passing, for the benefit of those interested in compensation issues, that the remedy sought by the two petitions is an intriguing variation on the express purchase scheme. The farmhouse lies wholly within the extended home owner protection zone and, accordingly, both petitioners are eligible, prima facie, to have their dwellings purchased under the express purchase scheme. However, what the petitioners are seeking is to rebuild the farmhouse away from its current location on land owned by Mrs Round. They are of the opinion that they will be far more assured of gaining the necessary planning permissions to do this if the new farmhouse can be presented as a replacement for the old. It is also their view that demolishing the existing farmhouse will enable more efficient landscape mitigation planting to be devised. What they are seeking, therefore, is an undertaking that the old farmhouse will be demolished after it has been purchased by the Government. Since the rules of the express purchase scheme do not accommodate any constraint on the fate of the property after the transfer of ownership, and demolishing the house would result in the loss to the Government of any potential resale value, the petitioners’ request has been denied by the promoter and the petitioners are requesting that the Select Committee intervene.

But, as I said, the intriguing questions that the two petitions pose for the voluntary compensation provisions are not the topic for today. What I wish to bring to your attention is a passage in the evidence given by Mrs Sadler that starts at paragraph 100 in the transcript for the Select Committee’s morning session on Wednesday, 15th October (or at about 10.20am in the corresponding video). Mrs Sadler told the Committee that her preference would be to continue to live in the existing farmhouse, but that “personal experience” had taught that HS2 would make that “totally intolerable and impossible” – the house would be only 20 metres away from the edge of the land to be acquired for HS2. She explained that this experience was gained over a period of more than ten years, while the WCML “TV4” scheme was being constructed to upgrade the section of line past her home to four tracks and that this work hadn’t been finalised until 2012, which was the same year that they had “officially found out about the proposed HS2 scheme”.

Mrs Sadler remarked that the work on the WCML had “not only brought the railway lines closer to the houses”, but had entailed what she described as “disturbance”. She elaborated:

“We had the noise and the dust from the construction and the endless trucks from the machinery and building works, and also tolerated the unsociable working hours, with lights on and noise in the evenings and at weekends.”

Mrs Sadler also told the Members of the Committee that a haul road had been constructed on her side of the WCML, bringing the construction even nearer to her home and that this feature had caused “security problems”. She cited as an instance a burglary of one of her outbuildings, resulting in the loss of “a large number of power tools and equipment”, where the thieves had gained access via the haul road.

Mrs Sadler also described “the issues of stress and worry to contend with” and the necessity for “countless meetings and correspondence with Network Rail”. She told the Committee that both she and her husband had lost “many working hours” and continued:

“… a lot of that time was spent in negotiations, meetings etc. Accommodation works were not to standard, so we had to (sic) a written and photographic log while that was taking place. It included field range problems, our BT lines being cut through, further temporary blocks of land being taken and not restored back at the same time, or with late compensation.”

So Mrs Sadler’s claim that she and her husband “know what’s lying ahead” for them seems well founded, and I think that she is qualified to reach the conclusion that she presented to the Committee:

“The HS2 scheme was obviously far more extensive and intrusive and will affect us in by far a larger way, so to live next to it will be totally unacceptable.”

Important Note: The document from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

PS: The Committee’s initial reaction to the compensation request made by Mr and Mrs Sadler and Mrs Round is that they should seek further advice on whether there is a planning option that would not require the demolition of the existing farmhouse before the Committee considers whether any further action is appropriate (see paragraph 2 in the transcript for the morning of Thursday 30th October).

PPS: Whilst researching this blog I came across an amusing – at least to me – error in the uncorrected transcript. The Hansard reporter appears to have misheard promoter’s counsel, James Strachan QC, when he referred to a blight notice and paragraph 6 in the transcript records him telling the Committee that petitioners had served a “polite notice” on the promoter. I’m sure that we all try to be polite in our dealings with HS2 Ltd, but I have to admit that this has been very hard for me to maintain and that I have, on occasion, been rather impolite.

Me too, please

You may have formed the (correct) impression from various postings that I have made in connection with the public consultations that have been held on the discretionary property compensation proposals for HS2 that I don’t regard them as particularly fair. It doesn’t seem right to me that eligibility for compensation should be decided based upon the fairly arbitrary criterion of distance from the proposed line of route, rather than taking account of the impact that HS2 is likely to have and the level of blight affecting a property. Distance from the line is a very poor measure of impact; the natural topography, trackbed height and the quality of any proposed mitigation will all affect the impacts that HS2 will have in any locality. Clearly, it will be a totally different matter living 200 metres, say, from HS2 running in deep cutting, than it will be if the track is 20 metres up on a viaduct.

This approach also totally ignores the impact of ancillary works that experience has shown can be some distance from the trackline.

The proposals that are now in place, and the ones that are due to be put in place in the very-near future, will result in situations where a comparatively small number of properties, those within the safeguarding, extended homeowner protection and rural support zones, will be eligible for, at least, full market value compensation. However, equally, or even more highly, blighted property owners will be left swinging in the wind, or palmed off with a derisory homeowner payment, just because their properties lie a few extra metres away from the line of route.

The proposals have also been deliberately designed to limit the total number of property owners who can benefit, solely to meet the Government’s estimate of what is “affordable”. The result is that many thousands of home owners suffering from property blight will be left totally without any help.

However, by far the greatest injustice resulting from the Government’s compensation policy is to those who live in urban areas. You only have to look at what HS2 will mean to Camden, as I have done in past postings on this site, to realise that the impacts in some locations in urban areas will be dire and long-lasting. Yet, residents in urban areas are excluded from the voluntary purchase scheme and the homeowner payments.

In order to seek out an explanation of the Government’s rationale for devising this unjust state of affairs we have to refer to the document that was issued for the 2012-13 compensation consultation, and specifically paragraph 2.16. There we are told that extending the voluntary purchase zone into urban areas “cannot be justified” as it would “encompass homes a number of streets away from the proposed line where the impact of HS2 is likely to be negligible”.

The sense of injustice that I feel with this treatment of urban residents is, I know, shared by many, and I am sure that these people will, like me, be pleased to learn that a cross-party group of London MPs and council leaders has formed an alliance “to urge the Government to grant ‘A fair deal for London’ on HS2 compensation”.

This alliance has set up an e-petition calling on the Government to ensure “fair compensation and mitigation for London’s residents and businesses affected by the construction of HS2”.

If you agree with the points that I have made about the unjustness of the current proposals to urban residents, then I hope that you will feel able to join me in adding your name to this petition.

A truth universally acknowledged

To borrow from one of this country’s great novelists (see footnote 1), it appears to be a universally-acknowledged truth that ancient woodland is one of our most precious environmental assets and should be preserved for present and future generations.

The joint Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forestry Commission publication Keepers of Time, which is subtitled A statement of policy for England’s ancient and native woodland, describes England’s ancient woodlands and trees as a “living cultural heritage, a natural equivalent to our great churches and castles”. The document adds, for good measure:

“They are also our richest wildlife habitat and are highly valued by people as places of tranquillity and inspiration.”

Even the HS2 Phase 1 Environmental Statement, not perhaps given to overestimating the value of the environmental assets that HS2 would destroy, repeatedly describes ancient woodland as “irreplaceable” (see footnote 2).

So it should come as no surprise that Keepers of Time identifies one of the policy aims of Defra’s and the Forestry Commission’s vision to be achieved by the year 2020 – cleverly called “2020 Vision” (get it?) – as being that the “existing area of ancient woodland should be maintained”. This is to be achieved, the document tells us, by the strategic objective of taking “steps to avoid losses of ancient woodland and of ancient and veteran trees”.

Just in case this isn’t a clear enough indication of purpose, Keepers of Time sets out what needs to be done in the most explicit terms:

“… we believe that we must now significantly raise the profile and importance of ancient woodland by placing it right at the heart of our policies on woodlands and forestry. Our ancient and semi-natural woodlands are the jewels in the crown of English forestry, and protecting and enhancing them will be a high priority.”

So if this 2020 Vision is government policy, why does the Woodland Trust think, as I reported in my blog Got till it’s gone (posted 30 Oct 2014), that it is necessary to ring alarm bells about ancient woodland at risk?

Probably the first thing to check is that the document remains current government policy, as it was published in 2005 and so is the child of the last Labour administration. The reassurance required appears to be provided by a later Defra publication Government Forestry and Woodlands Policy, which was published in January 2013 and is, therefore, firmly in the era of the Coalition Government. This policy statement confirms, at the very end of Chapter 6, that the Government will renew its “commitment to the policies set out in … Keepers of Time”.

Another obstacle to ensuring that ancient woodland is preserved for future generations is a lack of effective legal protection. The Woodland Trust review that I cited in Got till it’s gone maintains that 85% of our ancient woodland has “no legal protection” (on page 6). According to the Trust, even when measures affording statutory protection are provided, such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation, “these all contain gaping loopholes that allow ancient woodland to be destroyed or severely damaged” (also on page 6).

The Woodland Trust press release that spurred me to write Got till it’s gone also identifies a loophole in the planning system that it claims “puts [ancient woodland] at severe risk”. This loophole is offered by the wording of paragraph 118 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) document . The relevant part of this paragraph starts well enough:

“planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland …”

But then sixteen words follow that offer not so much a loophole as a huge carriage door through which a developer may drive his coach and horses:

“… unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.”

So it would appear that the 20/20 vision with which Defra views the world is not a facility shared by the myopic Department for Communities and Local Government.

The situation is even worse when it comes to HS2. In the first place, the hybrid bill process by-passes the normal planning regime defined by the NPPF, and so HS2 Ltd can ignore paragraph 118 entirely – as far as I can see, nowhere in the mountain of paperwork generated in support of the project has justification been offered that the benefits outweigh the loss of any of the ancient woodland that would be destroyed by the project.

In the second place, judging by the utterances of the minister responsible for HS2 Phase 1, the Department for Transport not only lacks clear vision but also comprehension. The Oxford Dictionary defines irreplaceable as “impossible to replace if lost or damaged”. Robert Goodwill MP appears to use a different dictionary, because he said in the House of Commons earlier this year (footnote 3):

“We cannot replace ancient woodland straight away, but we can do whatever possible to ensure that it regenerates and, in the fullness of time, replace that environment.”

Whether Mr Goodwill truly believes this or is merely trying to deceive, the conceit that ancient woodland can be manufactured, even “in the fullness of time”, is a dangerous, as well as a totally false, notion that can only lead to a trivialisation of the loss.

Footnotes:

  1. The novelist is, of course, Jane Austen, and the source is perhaps the most well-known opening sentence in English literature:
    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride and Prejudice)
  2. For example, “irreplaceable” is used three times in this connection in the Volume 2 report for my own community forum area (CFA17), in paragraphs 7.3.5, 7.4.3 and 7.4.29).
  3. The quote may be found in column 765 of the House of Commons Official Report for Tuesday 29 April 2014.

Got till it’s gone

One of life’s simple pleasures that is denied me at the moment is a trip to the pub. This has been the case since the start of this year, when I decided that I should be considerate to the poor souls who will have to bear my coffin, whenever the time comes for that, and shed some blubber – proof that this was a long-overdue decision can be found in the photograph illustrating my blog Brief encounter (posted 22 Apr 2013).

A few days back I breached my self-imposed exile from licensed premises, but only in the line of duty you will appreciate. The occasion was a gig performed by local singer-songwriter Jackie James and some of her friends in a hostelry in Leamington. The excuse that allowed me to attend the gig with a clear conscience – well almost a clear conscience – was that Jackie had kindly dedicated the evening to our action group, and had organised a raffle in aid of our funds. The raffle did very well for us, I am pleased to report; people always seem to be at their most generous when relaxing at the pub, which is something that the Salvation Army latched on to many years ago.

Apart from suffering the frustration of spending all evening sipping a single point of beer, the product of a certain brewery in Southwold that is high on my list of favourites, I really enjoyed the evening, and the music was first-rate. Jackie, in particular, is a very talented music maker, and one of the songs that she performed, although originally recorded in 1970, is very pertinent to the situation that I find myself facing with HS2. That song is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

I am sure that anyone who was a student in my era will be familiar with this song, and Wikipedia informs me that it has been “covered” fairly regularly since then, so there is a chance that it may also be familiar to today’s younger audiences. Certainly, the environmentally-concerned lyrics – Joni sings about when “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – are, sadly, still all too relevant today, despite all the tripe about “the greenest government ever” and David Cameron being photographed on a dog sled at a time when we were blissfully ignorant about his real motivation and even prepared, perhaps, to believe him.

Indeed, the very next morning I heard on the news that the Woodland Trust was reporting “the largest threat to a single ancient woodland site in England that the [Trust] has seen in its 42-year history”. According to the Trust, this threat stands to condemn 50 ha – that’s more than three times the size of London Zoo – of ancient woodland near Tamworth in Staffordshire to becoming a quarry for the extraction of 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel.

This latest example may be the “largest” threat to ancient woodland, but it is only one of many; the Woodland Trust advises that there are currently more than 400 ancient woods threatened across the UK and that, over the past decade, it has contested the cases of more than 1,000 woods under threat of development.

The Tamworth proposal is currently only an application by Lafarge Tarmac, and you might think that the chances of it actually happening are slim; surely, as the last resort, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will call it in and deny the application. However, the Woodland Trust announcement includes a note that a similar application involving 32 ha of ancient woodland near Maidstone was approved by Eric Pickles in 2013, so I think that we should regard the Tamworth application as a very real threat.

The Woodland Trust has estimated that the blanket woodland coverage of lowland UK that was established following the end of the ice ages amounted to as much as 90% of the total UK land area. By the time that the Domesday Book was being compiled this was down to an estimated 15%, and currently stands at a mere 2% of the total UK land area. However, the Natural England assessment is that these remnants still amount, in total, to around 200,000 ha of ancient semi-natural woodland in England alone, so why do we need to worry about the fate of the odd 50 ha?

The answer is that our ancient woodland is suffering death by a thousand cuts. In my blog Leaving something for the grandchildren (posted 17 Mar 2013), I reported Woodland Trust claims that a total of 22,770 acres (9,214 ha) of ancient woodland was under risk at that time, and this is not an insignificant portion of our total reserve. And the damage is far worse than the loss of woodland area alone; when it comes to the ecological value of ancient woodland, size really does matter. In an informative review that the Woodland Trust published at the turn of the millennium, the problems that arise from the fragmentation of woodland, resulting from the felling of parts of larger woods, are discussed (see page 9).

The Trust’s review characterises the 20th century as “a difficult one for the UK’s ancient woodland”, chiefly due, under Forestry Commission policy, to the wholesale creation of plantations on ancient woodland sites that reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s – my researches revealed the coined word “coniferisation” (a word that I rather like, in a warped sort of way) to describe this now generally deprecated practice. The document reports that “since the 1930s, more than 38 per cent of ancient woodland in England and Wales has been felled and converted to plantations and a further eight per cent cleared for agriculture”.

In contrast, the Trust’s review sees the 1990s as “a change for the better”, but nevertheless warns that “our surviving ancient woods are still under threat”. Certainly, I think that we have seen off the menace of further coniferisation, but that has been replaced by an increasing risk from development projects, of which HS2 is, of course, only one example. I think that we should view the Trust’s current ringing of an alarm bell as a warning that we might be slipping back to the old ways of wholesale destruction.

As Joni Mitchell’s song says, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

PS: I can’t resist bringing to your attention an environmental metaphor, of the type that we have become familiar with from the Environmental Statement, trotted out to the Commons HS2 Select Committee by the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, and to be found in the (uncorrected and therefore subject to change) transcript for the morning of Wednesday 22 October 2014:

  1. [MR MOULD QC (DfT):] …in order to carry out the earthworks, it’s necessary to impinge into a section of Roundhill Wood.
  2. SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Sorry, ‘impinge’ means destroy.
  3. MR MOULD QC (DfT): [in a jocular fashion] Yes, cut down, but we know what we mean.

Oh yes Mr Mould, we know what you mean, and so, it appears, does Sir Peter.

PPS: The very day that this blog was posted the Woodland Trust reported that Lafarge Tarmac had confirmed that it had withdrawn its proposal to quarry the wood near Tamworth (Hopwas Wood). Very good news, of course, but the Trust also points out that “it’s important to remember that the clock is still ticking on the 400 other ancient woods that remain at risk”.

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