Leaving something for the grandchildren

I spent the occasion of my second blog birthday very quietly. I’m not one for grand celebrations, and HS2 doesn’t give me too many causes for festivity these days. I did however make a point of settling down to watch the special A Royal Appointment edition of the BBC 1 TV programme Countryfile, edited by and featuring His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

I have a degree of affinity with Prince Charles. We were both born in the same year and I share some of his views about modern architecture – I applauded his “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend” speech. I also share his love of the countryside, although he has a good few more acres of it at his disposal than me and he doesn’t have to clean his own boots.

In the programme, the Prince of Wales confessed his passion for nature and ventured:

“I think a huge number of people in Britain also love the countryside. It matters to them.”

He also reflected on how he felt about the prospect of becoming a grandfather:

“We need to think about the future. We need to think about what kind of world we are handing on to our successors, particularly grandchildren. If you think of it in those terms, it should make us reflect a little bit about the way that we do things, so that we don’t ruin it for them. That’s why it’s so important to work in harmony with nature, rather than thinking that we can somehow ignore, dominate, separate ourselves from nature …”

These wise words caused me to recall a newspaper article, published in the Sunday Telegraph, that I had read earlier in the day. This article reports claims by the Woodland Trust that at least 350 ancient woods – amounting to 22,770 acres of irreplaceable woodland, which is an area almost as large as Coventry – are currently regarded as at risk under plans to build housing, roads, quarries and HS2. The article also reported that the Trust regards this threat as the greatest in the fifteen years since it began recording ancient woodlands at risk.

Surely, this is hardly something that you would expect from “the greenest government ever”. Indeed, the article makes the point that this situation has arisen “despite promises by the Coalition to protect the countryside with its recent planning law reforms”.

The document that “sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how these are expected to be applied” is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and paragraph 118 appears to seek to protect ancient woodland:

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

So what is going wrong that has put so many ancient woodlands at risk? I strongly suspect that too often planners, when consulting the text of paragraph 118, are deciding that the need for and benefits of developments are outweighing the loss to the environment. But this begs the question, “By what criteria and under what value system are such judgements being made?” The NPPF hardly seems to be much help in making such judgements.

According to Sue Holden, Chief Executive of the Woodland Trust, quoted in the Sunday Telegraph article, “Eighty-five per cent of ancient woodland is undesignated”. This means, Ms Holden claims, that, “… it remains under threat due to weaknesses in planning policy, despite previous assurances from ministers that it would be protected”. The article also reports the National Trust as warning that, “problems at local authority level in implementing the new rules were a serious threat to countryside not protected by law”.

The article claims that, “by far the biggest threat [to ancient woodlands] comes from the HS2 rail link”. This is surely true as, in addition to the sheer size of this project and its inflexibility when it comes to avoiding sensitive locations, the hybrid bill will enable the sponsors of HS2 to neatly sidestep all planning procedures. All sites in its way, protected or not, will be at its mercy; after all, even the AONB status of the Chilterns has proved little defence from the ravages of HS2.

The article cites some examples of ancient woodlands that are currently under threat. These include South Cubbington Wood in Warwickshire – I think that you may have heard of that one – and another HS2-threatened wood in Yorkshire. It also mentions a wood in Kent endangered by a quarry extension, nine ancient woods in Essex and seven in Wales that will be damaged by housing and other development and, believe it or not, even the trees that are said to have sheltered the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie before the Battle of Culloden are in fear of the developer’s chainsaw.

The Sunday Telegraph even managed to find someone from the Campaign to Protect Rural England who is prepared to speak out against the Government. Paul Milner, Senior Planning Campaigner for that organisation, is quoted as saying:

“We have growing concerns that the Government is allowing development at any cost rather than ensuring it takes place where it will have the least environmental impact.”

But it’s not just ancient woodland that is under threat; land designated as within the Green Belt is also within the developers’ sights, and the Government appears to be presiding over the undoing of fifty year’s good work by local authorities in preventing incursions into this protected space. My own local district council for example has recently published, on the basis of its interpretation of what the NPPF allows, a draft local plan that contemplates the building of around three thousand new houses on such land. HS2 pays no regard at all to the need to protect the Green Belt, and specifically threatens two strategically important buffers between Coventry and Birmingham and Coventry and Kenilworth.

The article in the Sunday Telegraph concludes with a terse statement from an unnamed “spokesman” for the Department of Communities:

“The Government is committed to safeguarding the natural environment and ensuring strong protections for ancient woodland, the green belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and many other countryside treasures.”

What a disgustingly smug sentence that is and, in the face of what precedes it in the Sunday Telegraph article, it is also a totally disingenuous one.


5 responses to this post.

  1. I just wanted to thank you, Peter, for your continued and excellent blogging.

    Based very near Euston, with the line in cutting having emerged from tunnel, my immediate concerns are inevitably different to yours – but it is so good to be constantly reminded of the awful situation “up the line”, and also to be made aware of the wider context. The loss of our ancient woodlands is indeed a terrible thing.

    There is a narrow strip of scrub to one side of the cutting that small birds use as a stop-over point when crossing the cutting – of no “value” as such…. will it be replaced?

    And in Camden we can see the Council selling off its pocket green spaces, even community gardens, in order to fund additional housing. These too are not protected habitats but they are hugely valuable both for wildlife and for people. We need housing but we also need nature.


    • Thanks “Luisa” for your comments. I must admit that your praise provided a much-needed lift to my spirits following the news from the High Court that our environment is, apparently, not as well protected by the Law as we might have wished.
      You are right that urban green areas are very important to our ecology and I accept that this is one topic that I have not looked at in my blogs so far.
      As far as Euston goes, I am very concerned about the impact that HS2 will have on the urban environment also, and posted six blogs last July and two further blogs in November on the damage to the built environment and the local community that will result from the project.
      I had planned to look at Euston further in the light of the published safeguarding maps showing that the land-take is even greater than feared. However, I have delayed this following the news reports that HS2 is “scaling back” on its proposals for Euston Station and that the impacts on the community could be even worse as a result.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on March 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Peter we lost our old wood years ago to open cast mining and then some spectacular areas over a 15 year period. The woods never grow back as they were being out competed with saplings from sycamore to replace oak and beech, lost were also the undergrowths of leaves and peat in places. There was not significant local knowledge with the first route alignments. The AOS is not on a scale to enable avoidances at 400kph. The Judicial Review is not subject to cross-examination of witnesses and of participants and public inquiries are the only way to involve specialists alongside lay judges who do not competent in all the areas. The review of the Regional Spacial Planning issued in DCLG Agency presentations with the name of one of the Permanent Secretaries with a scale not enabling discerning of developments simply demonstrates fine words but not actions. The nation is lost currently as Lord Gus O’Donnell asserted on leaving his Post a strategy for the South East could be to concrete the region but it would not be acceptable. How is the extent of the concreting and the extent of protection to be balanced. NO one seems to know and no one has the ability to bring a balance when there is dogmatic obsession with a theme.


  3. Posted by andy sharp on March 19, 2013 at 9:29 am

    On the principle that a transport system exists to save us time I’ve done some simple calculations, using official figures, on the first phase of the HS2. They might interest, or perhaps provoke, your readers.



    • Thanks for the link Andy. I took a look at the “official” calculations of costs and benefits in a series of blogs posted back in August and September 2012. I must admit that I haven’t checked the figures that you have used in your novel approach, but two things jumped out at me.
      The first is that the Government expects only high earners to use HS2, or so it appears, and has used an average hourly salary rate of more than three times your £12 an hour. The second is that you appear to have ignored the fact that as well as paying for the construction of HS2 through our taxes we wil also have to pay its running costs by a combination of buying tickets and subsidy from our taxes (again).


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