A lesson in environmentalism, part 2

(… continued from A lesson in environmentalism, part 1, posted on  25 Sep 2013).

Second to speak in the adjournment debate High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands), which was held in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 3 July 2013, was Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP (Conservative, Chesham and Amersham).

Mrs Gillan spoke from notes on a number of sheets of paper spread around her. Although this had the advantage of making her delivery less rigid and more of a personal chat, it did lead, I think, to a lack of structure in her argument at times.

Although a number of her points echoed what Michael Fabricant had said before her, she did open her speech by saying something that he had not – registering her disappointment that “it would have been nice to have an Environment Minister present to engage with a subject that is specifically environmental”. In this she was, of course, perfectly correct; although she expressed the view that the Transport Minister would “show that he has great expertise and has been briefed perfectly”, events proved this to be far from the case – something that became very apparent almost immediately when the Transport Minister made a couple of particularly inept interventions, which I will report on in a future blog.

Mrs Gillan was at pains to praise past and present efforts of the Woodland Trust, which she said had briefed her for the debate “among other conservation organisations”. She explained how the Woodland Trust found itself in opposition to HS2:

“Given the threat posed by, say, climate change to the natural environment, not least to ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust also supports the move to develop a low-carbon economy. However, a transport solution that inflicts such serious damage on our natural heritage, as the current route does, can never really be described as green. The Government’s preferred routes for the phases of the scheme will cause loss or damage to at least 67 irreplaceable ancient woods. As the Woodland Trust has said to me, that is too high an environmental price to pay, and the route should be reconsidered in light of those facts alone.”

Amongst what amounted to a restatement of some the facts and figures about ancient woodland that Mr Fabricant had trotted out, Mrs Gillian did provide one new revelation:

“According to Natural England, nearly 50% of the ancient woodland that survived beyond the 1930s has already been lost.”

Mrs Gillian commented on what she sees as “a huge conflict in Government policy”, citing the Defra forestry policy document that Michael Fabricant had quoted and comparing this with the destruction of “comparably large swathes of ancient woodland” that will be the result of constructing HS2.

In possibly the most effective section of her speech, Mrs Gillan described the impact that HS2 would have on ancient woodland in her own Chesham and Amersham constituency. She reported that eighteen ancient woods in her constituency are within 500 metres of the line, and that seven of these “are directly in the path of the proposed line and will be totally devastated by its construction”. She gave land-take figures for three of these: Sibley’s Coppice will lose 2.1 hectares (more than 28%), at Farthings Wood almost 1 hectare (more than 40%) will be consumed, and at Mantle’s Wood 6.3 hectares (more than 25%) will disappear under HS2.

She reinforced these bare figures by a description of a visit that she had made to Mantle’s Wood – according to her “one of the most beautiful woods that can be imagined” – the previous week. She expressed the fear that some of us share that the figures do not tell the whole story:

“Nobody can tell me that all those men and vehicles, all that spoil shifting and everything that will go on during the construction of the major exit of a tunnel will not damage the rest of that wood irreparably.”

This is a very important point in my view and something that is not considered in the draft Environmental Statement (dES). Construction on this scale is not like brain surgery, it lacks precision; surely we can expect considerable “collateral damage” outside of the confines of the lines that mark the boundary of construction activities on the current maps. The severe effect that the fragmentation of a wood into smaller, less-viable parts can have on the ecology should also not be ignored.

At this point in her speech Mrs Gillan’s logical argument gave way to a cri de coeur:

“People would weep if they could see what their children, their children’s children and future generations will lose if the project goes ahead.”

Mrs Gillan talked about the limited relief that mitigation can offer, stating categorically that “loss of ancient woodland can never be compensated” and that this truth applied no matter “what the Minister says or how many people write it”.

“Over the millennia, ancient woodland has evolved its own ecosystem, including soils and fungi. When those are disturbed, they are lost. One cannot just pick up the wood and the soil, move them somewhere else, build something, and then move them back and replant. That ecosystem has taken hundreds of years to develop, and we are going to destroy it just like that.”

She described the plans to plant 4 million trees as “not good enough” and compared the biodiversity offsetting ratio proposed for HS2 of 2:1 with the “absolute minimum” suggested by the Woodland Trust of 30:1.

Like Mr Fabricant, Mrs Gillan does not appear to a very high opinion of the dES, which she described as “superficial, inconsistent and incomplete”. In her speech she accused the document of understating the environmental damage that HS2 would cause, and complained that “the presentation suggests that environmental impact is a secondary consideration” – she said that she regarded this as “simply not good enough for such an expensive project”.

She attacked the suggestion in the dES that the proposed woodland planting by way of mitigation “will have a beneficial effect”, saying that “the view of our environmental organisations is that it is unacceptable to claim that the effect will be beneficial when the woodland planting will be only partial compensation for the loss of ancient woodland”. She also took issue with the dES claim that, “At present there are no route-wide significant effects on habitats”. In Mrs Gillan’s view this “is clearly not the case given that 67 ancient woods will suffer direct loss or damage, and given the national importance ascribed to ancient woodland by the national planning policy framework”.

Mrs Gillan also touched on the circumstances that appear to have resulted in the project running into difficulties with its budget and the resulting emphasis on cost control. She succinctly expressed a fear that I share:

“When money is squeezed, the first thing to go is promises to protect the environment.”

She also reflected upon the change of emphasis in the Government’s raison d’être for HS2:

“The story has changed a little, however; it is now about capacity on the west coast main line. If that is the case, the Department for Transport must look seriously at variations to the route to minimise not only the environmental damage, at least, but some of the horrors of blight that will be caused to people’s lives, homes, businesses and communities along the line. The existing proposal had better not be the last word on the route from the Department.”

And finally, like Mr Fabricant, Mrs Gillan appeared to be puzzled by the politics that had seen her own party swap its pre-election policy on HS2 for the scheme proposed by the Labour Party:

“The gaff has been blown by Lord Mandelson—Lord Adonis came up with an idea that was more political than practical. Labour was probably a little surprised when we adopted it hook, line and sinker, and certainly when we went for the route through the AONB.”

And it’s hard to disagree with her on that!

(To be continued …)

PS: To read Mrs Gillan’s speech in full consult columns 246WH to 253WH in the Hansard record.


5 responses to this post.

  1. The fundamental rail capacity problem is related to braking distances and safety:
    steel railway tyres on steel rails have very poor grip compared with car tyres on roads.
    Consequently the stopping distance for trains is far greater than the stopping distance for cars travelling at the same speed.
    To run our rail services safely, we can either
    (a) Stick with our Victorian era friction braking systems and build more tracks to increase capacity. – This is the HS2 approach.
    (b) Develop a powerful frictionless braking system that will allow more trains to travel safely along our exiting tracks.
    A suitable braking technology is proposed at http://www.cheshire-innovation.com/Transport%20internet.htm


    • Congratulations Bill on getting your plug on my site on the flimsiest of pretexts, but you just crept in as Cheryl Gillan did refer to capacity issues in her speech.
      I am sure that you are right in that braking efficiency should be a topic for debate for HS2. After all, you wouldn’t want to drive a Ferrari fitted with Morris Minor brakes, I suspect. However, I would think that the efficiency of the braking system employed for HS2 will be limited by passenger comfort and safety, and you don’t seem to give much consideration to this aspect on your website.
      It is true that the safe time interval and, hence, the maximum train path capacity of HS2 is an issue. Some dispute that 18 trains an hour each way will be achievable, and even if it is there will be very little scope for new train paths once Phase 2 is running – it seems crazy to me to build a new railway that won’t cater for new services because it is already capacity limited.
      Of course, the simple way to reduce stopping distance, even with the limitations that the wheel/rail friction applies, would be to reduce the operating speed.
      By the way, I was an engineering student at Imperial College in the 1960s and was very much in awe of Professor Laithwaite, so I am very pleased to see the principles that he discovered being applied.


  2. Posted by chriseaglen on September 29, 2013 at 10:45 am

    People lost woods due to open cast mining and there was a conversion to poor grass or arable land. Never the replacement for mature woods with the fibrous ground. A wood lost is forever and at best become the sapling sycamore and elder the bain of Network Rail banks and cuttings and in some curved areas steel rail gauge corner cracking of Hatfield and other sites. The issue is not only braking distance but signalling clearance dsitances and it is this area WCML can be changed since the last upgrade. I had Professor Laithwaite as one of my grant assessors and whilst discussing and seeing his experimental area found his interest in the countryside and agriculture and in modernising techniques and apply science was inspiring. As a result today farmers are planting 30 to 100 acres per day of winter wheat compared with the 8 to 12 acres of the 60s and 70s. HS2 one track each way was and is wrong for capacity and engineering requirements in a railway. Sadly as one of the inner small core of the Cammeron clan aludes to in the Sunday Times page 8 they want a free hand for the executive, which they show through the lack of an SEA and alternatives, they are not ashamed of bullying and they are part of the small group sending their missionary MPs out to engage and show compasion whilst they sit in an urban bunker with Hammond fearful of guerrilla urban warfare whist the CPRE want more members of save the countryside. What a situation the UK is on when it can not formulate mega projects or plan infrastructure for population growth and now has a level of demand beyond its capacity to find the space and pay for it. Mr Mclaughlan calls not having this Route 3 phase 1 HS2 a disaster. The disaster is the lack of foresight and failures to address the contextual factors in time. No HS2 Route 3 phase 1 is not the answer.


  3. A better alternative to HS2 will be launched shortly. It will actually be worth building.


  4. Posted by Roger Landells on October 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Surely we need HS2AA/51M to bring together a Task Force comparable to that set up by HMG to counter the spurious claims coming from the PM, Network Rail’s economist, KPMG, Deloitte et al.
    We are entering a period of trench warfare and the anti side seem to be far too gentlemanly at present.


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