A lesson in environmentalism, part 4

(… continued from A lesson in environmentalism, part 3, posted on 3 Oct 2013).

As is customary, the fourth and final speaker in the adjournment debate High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands), which was held in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 3 July 2013, was the responsible minister, Rt Hon Simon Burns MP. The Minister spoke for approximately thirty minutes, but managed to say very little that the two backbenchers, and environmentalists, listening to him, or subsequently reading his words, would have found reassuring.

The Minister began by pointing out that “a balance has to be struck between the economic needs of the country and the potential impact on a countryside that has been enjoyed by generations of people”. Of course he is right in this, but some might think that the Government sets the balance point much too far in favour of the “economic needs” end of the seesaw. The Minister did however say:

“We must ensure that any environmental effects are reduced as far as possible and also look for opportunities to benefit the environment along the way.”

He also gave an assurance that the Department for Transport (DfT) takes its “obligation to conserve” ancient woodlands “extremely seriously” and was “seeking to reduce, as far as practicable, any impacts” through “careful design of the route and strict controls during construction”. He gave two examples of this policy being applied. The first of these, the tunnel under Long Itchington Wood, is a clear case of political spin; when I raised this matter with HS2 Ltd engineers and environmentalists at the very first meeting of the Offchurch and Cubbington Community Forum I was told that the tunnel was nothing to do with protecting the SSSI, but merely represented the most cost-effective way of overcoming the obstacle to the path of HS2 presented by the significant hill upon which Long Itchington Wood stands. His second example, the retained cutting through South Cubbington Wood, is hardly a shining example of environmental protection at work – as readers of my blog Doing it on the cheap (posted 4 Mar 2012) will appreciate, I regard the benefits of this sop, if indeed there are any benefits, as marginal, at best.

The Minister also touched on the topic of the “interactive dialogue between communities and HS2 Ltd”, and demonstrated a stunning disconnect with reality. He said that he was impressed by the way in which “HS2 Ltd has been prepared to work with groups and local communities to make improvements.” Whilst he admitted that he had received a “variety of reports” of the meetings held with local communities by HS2 Ltd, he expressed the view that, “some reports have been extremely positive, saying that people have found the meetings extremely helpful”. Now there may be “some” local community representatives who would agree with the Minister, but I have yet to come across one. Everybody that I come into contact with, and I regularly meet with representatives up and down the route, has found “interaction” with HS2 Ltd to have been largely a fruitless and frustrating exercise –my own irritation at the treatment that I have received from HS2 Ltd led to an outburst in my blog Up the garden path (posted 28 May 2013).

The Minister offered the following justification for the damage that HS2 would do to ancient woodlands:

“With more than 22,000 ancient woodlands in England and Wales, it is impossible to avoid them all.”

This may be true, but I feel that it is possible to avoid some of those currently threatened and that HS2 Ltd has not given due consideration to avoidance, which best practice dictates is the most preferable remedy. A number of local communities have, I know, submitted proposals to HS2 Ltd that include avoidance measures to protect ancient woodland, but most have, I believe, incurred a similar fate to our South Cubbington Wood proposal, as I reported in Up the garden path. The rejection of proposals that will reduce the damage to ancient woodlands, purely on the grounds they will cost more to implement, is simply not acceptable.

It is clear that HS2 Ltd favours “providing suitable compensation for any ancient woodland that is lost” as a first, rather than a last, resort and the Minister appeared to support this approach. So he gave an assurance that HS2 Ltd will “create new woodland areas and wildlife habitats” as “suitable compensation for any ancient woodland that is lost”. Indeed the proposals to wrest productive land from farmers and plant them up with twigs in tubes were a feature of the maps published within the draft Environmental Statement, but I am not convinced that these constitute “suitable compensation”.

Of far more interest to me is the promise by the Minister that HS2 Ltd will “be examining opportunities to enhance existing woodland”. Certainly in my own area, this represents a potentially far more rewarding method of compensation, as we have areas of what the Woodland Trust describes as PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites), these originally being native ancient woodlands, but having been extensively planted with non-native, commercial tree species (predominantly conifers). These would, I am sure, respond to appropriate management, including clearance of the intrusive non-native trees and could, in time, be brought back to native ancient woodland.

In his speech, Mr Burns said that the DfT “would be open to any other ideas, if people think that a different form of compensation would be more appropriate”. I hope that he is sincere about this, as my community made proposals in its submission to the consultation on the draft Environmental Statement that the most-suitable compensation that HS2 Ltd can offer us is to restore the portion of our local ancient woodland that will not be damaged by HS2 Ltd. I have sought to discuss this matter further with HS2 Ltd, but have been unable to open a channel of communication with the Company on this issue.

(To be continued …)

PS: To read Mr Burns’ speech in full consult columns 256WH to 263WH in the Hansard record.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on October 8, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Indeed the proposals to wrest productive land from farmers and plant them up with twigs in tubes were a feature of the maps published within the draft Environmental Statement, but I am not convinced that these constitute “suitable compensation”.

    Look at the distortion of the brown corridors alongside cuttings for an indication of the policy to dump excavation material locally and to seize adjacent land regardless of productivity and dump the excavated land and make a wood alongside the route. Railway cuttings and leaves dropping in autumn equals wheel slip low adhesion slower speeds and safety issues as discussed in the article earlier.

    HS2 had no agricultural or foresty competence demonstrated in the route planning.


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