A lesson in environmentalism, part 5

(… continued from A lesson in environmentalism, part 4, posted on 7 Oct 2013).

The Transport Minister, Rt Hon Simon Burns MP, got himself into a little trouble when he reached the passage of his contribution to the adjournment debate High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands) where he dealt with translocation.

“Current best practice, which builds on methods employed for other major infrastructure projects, such as High Speed 1 and the M2 widening scheme, includes the relocation of the ancient woodland soil with its seeds to allow it to regenerate over time, together with the planting of native trees of local provenance. Ten years’ monitoring undertaken by environmental specialists has shown that new areas of habitat were successfully created along the HS1 route, including for protected species such as the dormouse.”

I was surprised to hear the Minister claim that the new areas of habitat created for HS1 had been monitored. I remembered attending a presentation given by Sharon Thompson, Head of Planning Application at Kent County Council, during which she said that she regretted that there had been no commitment made on HS1 for the “long term monitoring of environmental effects”. I was also taken aback by the Minister’s declaration that habitat creation has been successful on HS1; he was, I trust, not trying to give the impression that the translocation of ancient woodland had been successful – the Woodland Trust HS2 factsheet on translocation unequivocally states that “there is a lack of evidence to suggest that translocation of ancient woodland is a successful process”.

The Minister’s claims were obviously too much for Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP, as she intervened at this point:

“In the draft environmental statement, HS2 claims that the translocation of woods will result in habitat of a similar value, but the Construction Industry Research and Information Association specifically states that translocation of ancient woodland is only ‘an appropriate activity to salvage and create a new habitat of some value, albeit a lower one than lost’. That directly contradicts the claim in the draft environmental statement. Will the Minister now admit that it does not matter what is said here as the position is in line with what Natural England says? We cannot replace ancient woodland at all, and whatever we do will always result in a habitat of lesser value”. (see footnote)

The Minister’s reply clearly indicated that he does not get it:

“Yes, by definition, we cannot uproot an ancient woodland and transplant it lock, stock and barrel to another site, so in that respect my right hon. Friend is correct, but what we can do is take the measures I have described to transplant an area when woodland is being lost because of building work, which will go a considerable way towards helping to protect and improve the environment. That will not, of course, be the same as if one did nothing at all and left the existing ancient woodland, but it is a very good second-best option, and it is certainly better than doing nothing at all and letting that woodland be lost for ever.”

The whole point Minister is that you should move heaven and earth to avoid the damage in the first place, because habitat translocation is not “a very good second-best”, it is a very inferior substitute for what is lost.

Lilian Greenwood MP clearly thought that this hiatus in the Minister’s speech would be a good opportunity to tackle him on another point:

“I want to return to the Minister’s statement about no net loss. I query whether that is consistent with the Government’s national policy as set out in the natural environment White Paper and the national planning policy framework. Should they not actually adhere to the current policy of net gain?”

This was a fair question, particularly bearing in mind that Mr Burns had promised early in his speech that his department would “look for opportunities to benefit the environment”. However, all the Minister would offer in response was to state that “the intention and the determination is that there will be no net loss”. Obviously the Minister has not read his own Government’s environmental policy statements.

As the clock measured off the final minutes of the debate, the Minister got around to answering a number of specific questions that Michael Fabricant MP had sent to him in advance in the expectation of a reply during the debate. From this passage we learnt that “HS2 Ltd is constantly looking at the route and refining the mitigation that can be applied, and that will continue up until the hybrid Bill process”. So we don’t have very much time left on Phase 1, and the main conduit of contact with local communities has now disappeared with the demise of the community forums.

We also learnt that, as things stand currently, there will be “fewer than 36 hectares of ancient woodland lost for phase 1” and that it is too early to give a figure for Phase 2. The Minister also divulged that, as a rough estimate, between £10 million and £20 million “will be spent on seeking to avoid loss of woodland and on the creation of new woodland as part of the mitigation process”. At around 0.04% of the total cost, that doesn’t seem too generous to me; on this basis, there is obviously scope within the budget to pay for more avoidance measures without really affecting the bottom line.

We had the usual platitudes about involving local communities, but here the reality of the situation has already been demonstrated and it is action to improve the situation that is needed, not soothing, and apparently meaningless, words from the Minister.

In the final few sentences of his speech, the Minister gave the assurance that “the Government will keep listening to those who are concerned about the impact of the scheme on the environment” – I think that it would have been more useful if the Minister had told us when the Government planned to start this process. He also said:

“We will endeavour to make the scheme as environmentally responsible as possible. It is in all our interests to get the scheme right. We are determined to work with organisations and agencies and in government to do the least damage possible through this massive national project in the national interest.”

Well Minister, if you are going to deliver on that pledge, your department will have to do much better than it has up to now.

Footnote: Anderson P and Groutage P, Habitat translocation – a best practice guide, Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA), July 2003.

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

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by apolden on October 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Fascinating, as ever. According to my understanding, though, not even the translocation of woodland soil and leaf litter works well, because inevitably it cannot include all the micro-organisms that are required. A load of rubbish from the Minister, but now he has gone, will his successor be any more environmentally ‘literate’?

    Reply

    • Posted by chriseaglen on October 11, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      People gave up on politician speak in the 90’s and then MBA speak arrived but promisory speach continued with the addition of the right thing to do. Usually to confirm the wrong decision from recent PMs. Simply review NCB open cast mining areas to see what cannot be achieved in 60 years. There have been tree by tree tranplanting in some few locations but that is a tree and not a wood. The sycamore and other sapling rich varieties push forward spindly areas and in one case I know on limestone/clay boundaries after 60 years there is no similarity of the wide spaced oaks and ashes with bluebell woods. A loss for all human time. The motorways demonstrate the losses such as M4 Reading ever greens were sliced though.

      I have wondered where they will burn the cut woods as cannot see all with be recycled.

      As an SEA between the two governments there should have been a pause to assess width and speed straightening impacts. There was not and hopefully the case in the Supreme Court can establish there has not been duty of care.

      Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Musings of Butotoro and commented:
    A perfect summary of the government’s lack of understanding or at worst dissembling on environmental matters.

    Reply

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