A lesson in environmentalism, part 3

(… continued from A lesson in environmentalism, part 2, posted on  29 Sep 2013).

The third speaker in the adjournment debate High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands), which was held in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 3 July 2013, was the Shadow Transport Minister, Lilian Greenwood (Labour, Nottingham South).

Surprisingly, in view of her Party’s stated support for HS2, Ms Greenwood appeared to agree with the general stand taken on the need to preserve ancient woodland taken by the two Conservative backbenchers that had spoken before her. However, she prefaced her remarks about the damage that the proposal would cause to ancient woodland by recognising the environmental benefits that HS2 might provide by contributing to meeting carbon reduction targets. She took the opportunity that this provided to chastise the Government on three counts:

  • For dragging its heels on the promise to build a national recharging network for electric vehicles.
  • For failing to propose a single hybrid bill to cover the entire HS2 route, and thus maximise the carbon-saving potential.
  • For failing to set a clear timetable for decarbonisation of the electricity market.

She was right to point out that any carbon-saving potential associated with HS2 has “a close relationship with other policy areas”, such as the ones that she had identified. She was also right to argue that, although “rail journeys consume much less carbon than equivalent car journeys” at present, that “gap was expected to close as more electric cars entered the market”.

But, she made the important point that, even if HS2 proves to bring carbon emissions savings:

“… those wider gains will not cancel out the loss of individual habitats. Loss in some areas may be unavoidable, but damage should take place only when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. The test is whether every reasonable step has been taken to mitigate environmental damage.”

Ms Greenwood appeared to share the doubts that Mrs Gillan had raised in her speech about the relief that may be offered by translocation and other mitigation proposed by the Government:

“We must be clear that ancient woodland cannot be moved, but some animal species and soil can be moved or translocated, although the consequences of moving soil from ancient woodland are, sadly, poorly understood. Any trees that are moved will be coppiced, radically altering their appearance and risking the death of individual trees during the moving process. Although some constituent parts of the woodland may be salvaged, the original biodiversity cannot be recreated and is lost for ever. Natural England has said that translocation might, if carried out as a last resort when loss of the original habitat is completely unavoidable, form part of a package of compensation measures. In other words, translocation may have a part to play, but we must be honest about its limitations.”

Ms Greenwood also took the same path as Mrs Gillan, and indeed Mr Fabricant before her, in pointing out an “apparent contradiction” in the Government’s stated policy towards the protection of ancient woodland and what appeared to be happening in the case of HS2. Ms Greenwood took as her text the National Planning Policy Framework, which she said “contains a provision against development on ancient woodland sites”. She could not resist the temptation of attributing the failure to tackle this policy inconsistency to the reluctance of the Government to publish a national transport strategy; she said that it was “exactly the sort of issue” that such a strategy could address.

However, the Opposition has its own policy issue with HS2; something that was exposed by an intervention by Mr Fabricant during Ms Greenwood’s speech. He asked her to clarify the Opposition’s position on the choice of route corridor, as Labour had expressed a preference in 2011 for following the existing M40 transport corridor. Ms Greenwood admitted that her party had “considered alternative routes and argued that they should be considered by the new Government”. Her justification for supporting the project, even with the “wrong” route corridor, was not entirely lucid:

“We want the project to proceed, but there are significant concerns about the Government’s timetable, particularly the hybrid Bill. The Government are in a position to make decisions and we want the project to proceed, but that does not mean that we should not look carefully at the option for mitigation and compensation to protect the natural habitat.”

It therefore appears that the Opposition is placing speed of implementation above all other factors, and is willing to support a proposed route that Mr Fabricant, in his speech, said he felt “has been almost deliberately designed to be as damaging as possible to rural England”. It seems that the Opposition might have some sympathy with this view, but is not prepared to risk the project timescales by insisting on a route corridor review as a condition of its support for HS2 in Parliament. If I am right in this, it undermines Ms Greenwood’s insistence that “all reasonable alternatives” should be sought in the endeavour to minimise damage to the “natural habitat”.

Ms Greenwood concluded her speech with a promise:

“[HS2] is likely to result in further loss [of ancient woodland]. That is a matter of regret, and both the Government and HS2 Ltd must present an absolutely watertight case when they propose the disruption or destruction of ancient woodland sites. I promise hon. Members and the wider public that Labour will return to the issue during the Bill’s Committee stage.”

I would be heartened by this promise were it not for the feeling I have that the Opposition is colluding with the Government to rush pell-mell into foisting upon us a route that does not sit well in the landscape, and that neither Government or Opposition is paying much regard to the environmental consequences of this.

(To be continued …)

PS: To read Ms Greenwood’s speech in full consult columns 253WH to 256WH in the Hansard record.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on October 3, 2013 at 6:31 am

    shocking to not require subject and locality competence in these exchanges. SEA is about front end option and consequences all victims of a hybrid bill sic green light process


  2. Posted by apolden on October 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    As a member of the Woodland Trust I agree completely with their reasoning in opposing this appalling railway, which is so environment unfriendly in so many ways.


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