Enter Prince Charming, stage right, part 1

I am strongly of the opinion that the environment is the Cinderella of the HS2 story. Poor old Cinders has been abused and beaten by the two ugly stepsisters, HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport, and nobody seems to care. The debate about the worth of HS2 to the UK has concentrated almost exclusively on financial costs; the costs to the environment seem to get forgotten. Environmental matters, like habitat protection, sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions, appear to be a bit of a turn-off for Joe Public and the media that seek to inform him – of course, you are the exception as you have at least started reading this blog. This general public indifference has not been helped by a widespread ambivalence towards HS2 by, with a few gallant exceptions, the very groups that we might expect to stand up for the environment, such as the major environmental NGOs and countryside groups. This ambivalence appears to be attributable mainly to narrow interests and the fear that if HS2 doesn’t go ahead then something more environmentally damaging, such as new motorway building, will take its place. So the ugly sisters have been able to mistreat Cinderella with impunity.

The good news is that, late in the day, an environmental champion, in the shape of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), has assumed the role of Prince Charming. In undertaking its inquiry HS2 and the environment – I like that title, it sounds familiar – the EAC has tested the fit of the glass slipper of environmental stewardship on the two ugly stepsisters, and it was clear that there was no way that their clodhoppers of feet, that were trampling all over our green and pleasant land, could be shoe-horned into that particular footwear item.

I am proud to claim that I played a role, albeit a very minor role, in this particular fairy tale. I was one of a sixteen individuals who took the trouble to submit written evidence to the inquiry. Altogether fifty-five evidence papers were submitted to the EAC from forty-eight sources, including government and its agencies (but not HS2 Ltd), local government, environmental NGOs and campaign groups for and against HS2.

My own submission concerns the treatment of ancient woodlands in the Phase 1 Environmental Statement (ES). In it I express the view that the ES does not afford due significance to the environmental and cultural importance of ancient woodland and veteran trees, and that, in particular, it appears to ignore the test set by the National Planning Policy Framework of whether the benefits of development on ancient woodland “outweigh the loss”. I also point out that the ES contains very few examples where HS2 has been designed to avoid or reduce (mitigate) the loss of ancient woodlands, and that the proposals for alleviation rely almost entirely upon inadequate compensation employing planting and habitat translocation. In the light of this, my paper proposes an alternative compensation methodology based upon the restoration of existing ancient woodland.

I did not expect that my paper would have much impact on the EAC; that the EAC appears to recognise in the report that it has published following its deliberations the particular value of ancient woodland and the inadequate treatment of this habitat in the ES is, I recognise, due more to the evidence of the environmental hard-hitters such as the Woodland Trust, the RSPB and the Chilterns Conservation Board. I take consolation though in the fact that at least I was able to support the views expressed by these august bodies. I was however, I must confess, a trifle disappointed that my suggestion of restoring other ancient woodland as compensation for any that would be lost has not been taken up by the EAC. Apart from a mention, almost in passing, by the RSPB that a measure of compensation is possible “by improving the condition existing areas of semi-natural habitat, like neglected ancient woodland or PAWS [plantation on ancient woodland sites]”, I believe that I was the only witness that promoted this as a preferable alternative to creating new woodland for compensation.

The EAC says in its report that it “took oral evidence in only two sessions in the interest of being able to produce a report ahead of the [hybrid] Bill’s second reading”. Those given the accolade of being asked to attend Portcullis House were HS2 campaign groups (51m, Stop HS2, HS2 Action Alliance and Greengauge 21), NGOs (CPRE, Woodland Trust and Country Land and Business Association), Natural England, the Environment Agency, Defra, HS2 Ltd and the Department of Transport (DfT) as well as Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State at the DfT. So quite a number of the big hitters submitting written evidence were not called to give oral evidence.

(To be continued …)

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on May 22, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Radical is not a word in British Select Committees or politics. The revival of large woods with distinct species and mixed species should be a national priority given all the recent blights on types of tree. Perhaps that will be someones useful conclusion of the HS2 saga for the route 3 the public has given 4 thumbs down to so far. Pity a Select Committee has no persistent involvement to leave mainly unfinished all the inquiries to date. Would not call this due process or robust scrutiny.

    Reply

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