Keeping his shoes clean

(Perhaps if I had known when I wrote this that Simon Burns was about to throw in the towel, I wouldn’t have bothered. However, as I had completed it before the news broke, I don’t want it to go to waste. So I am posting it as my leaving present to the third incumbent of the post of Transport Minister since HS2 was first announced in March 2010.)

I expect that by now you have had enough of my dissection of the adjournment debate High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands), which was held in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 3 July 2013. However, I want to use today’s posting as a postscript to the debate, as it will give me the opportunity to have a little fun at the expense of the Transport Minister, Rt Hon Simon Burns MP.

You may recall that I said in my blog A lesson in environmentalism, part 2 (posted 29 Sep 2013) that the Minister had made “a couple of particularly inept interventions” during the debate and that I would say more in a future blog. Well the time has come.

The first of the Minister’s interventions that I wish to comment on came during the speech by Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP, but was presaged by an incident that happened during the preceding speech by Michael Fabricant MP. Mr Fabricant said, “ancient woodland is woodland formed in 1600 and before” and the Minister was heard to say – speaking from a sedentary position, as parliamentary parlance has it – “and after”. Mr Fabricant correctly replied, “No, it is not; ancient woodland is described as existing from 1600” and the Minister rose to make an intervention. Mr Fabricant refused to give way, so we did not hear what else the Minister wished to say at this juncture. Perhaps this was intended as a kindness on Mr Fabricant’s part, as I doubt that he wished to offer a minister from his own party the opportunity to demonstrate further his ignorance on this point.

However, Mr Burns failed to take the hint. One of the first points that Mrs Gillan made in her speech was that she had consulted her “hand-held device” for the definition of ancient woodland and that:

“It is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer specifically to woodland that has existed continuously since 1600 or before, in England and Wales, or 1750 in Scotland. Before those dates, planting of new woodland was uncommon, so a wood present in 1600 is likely to have developed naturally.”

Not content with this accurate explanation, the Minister decided to keep digging the hole that he was in and made an intervention:

“I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a point that I would have made to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), which is that 1600 is an arbitrary date; it does not mean that every woodland created in 1601 or 1602 is not necessarily an ancient woodland. That is the simple point that I was making.”

That a Minister responsible for the intended destruction of so much ancient woodland should not even understand the concept is, frankly, shameful. The whole point of ancient woodland is that it is natural, not created by man. So 1600 is employed, as Mrs Gillan had told him, because any woodland shown on the maps, or other records, of that date is very unlikely to have been created by man. Although virtually all woodland will have been modified by the hand of man since 1600, with trees being felled, replanted and/or coppiced, the other essential qualification is that the woodland should not have suffered large-scale felling and replanting at a later date, as this is likely to have damaged the ecology of the woodland soils.

Mrs Gillan tried to cloak the Minister’s gaffe with a whimsical remark, but then, unfortunately for her party, offered the Minister another chance to demonstrate his ignorance by making the innocent enquiry “I would be interested to know when he last walked in ancient woodland”.

Mr Burns was eager to provide this information, with what he clearly thought was a winning snippet:

“My right hon. Friend might be interested to know that I walked both in her constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield in a private visit by car all the way from the M25 up to Warwickshire along the line of route.”

Mrs Gillan avoided correcting the Minister’s confused geography – Lichfield, after all, is in Staffordshire, not Warwickshire – and simply asked the Minister which ancient woods in her constituency he had visited.

At this point in the transcript the Hansard reporter has been kind to the Minister, and you really have to view the video to appreciate just how confused he appeared – the incident starts at about 19mins 30secs in. It is clear that, despite surreptitiously searching his notes, he was unable to recall where he had been, or bring to mind a single name of the sites that he had visited. His description of what I take to be the viaduct across the Mid Colne Valley, complete with hand gestures, is particularly amusing.

Now I expect that the Minister had a red box open beside him on the back seat of his ministerial car, and the distractions of the delights within were clearly too great for him to pay much attention to the scenery outside the car. I would also be prepared to wager that any pedestrian excursions outside of the protection that the car offered were fairly limited; I think that it is extremely unlikely that any ancient woodland soil was allowed to sully the Minister’s polished shoes.

PS: The Ministerial contributions to which I refer in this blog are reported in columns 245WH to 246WH in the Hansard record.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on October 17, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Unfortunately others are tip toeing around the issues and locations also and making either gaffes or ridiculing each other. What is required for the S and E and each route 1 to 8 and an East Coast upgrade and an optimised alternative is an integral representation of the forest and woodland areas and agriculrural areas measured to be input into the evolving new phase of comparisions which may come from the Supreme Court case. Too many words and not enough numbers and images is resulting along with the limitations of some non-technical lawayers in a fudge which does not make progress.


    • I’d be interested to learn Chris just who you think the “others” are that “are tip toeing around the issues and locations also and making either gaffes or ridiculing each other”.
      One unfortunate clarification that the Supreme Court hearing provided was that, even if we win on SEA, the remedy that the Government will offer will not involve the environmental comparisons of different Phase 1 route options, but will be limited to comparing the different network configurations.


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