Not necessarily a good thing, part 2

(… continued from Not necessarily a good thing, part 1, posted on 11 Jul 2016).

One of the criticisms made by the Woodland Trust when it gave evidence to the Commons HS2 Select Committee in support of its petition was that the new habitat-creation “planting does appear to be constrained by the Bill limits and no additional powers are sought for more planting [outside of those limits]” (see footnote 1). It is true that the restoration of habit as close to the site where habitat will be destroyed can be beneficial in the case where the original habitat is also seen as a community leisure amenity, such as an open-access woodland. Clearly, a community needs to access any replacement, and so it should be reasonably close to any natural amenity that has been destroyed or degraded by HS2: even in this instance, however, the eventual amenity value of the replacement habitat, if its location is constrained by the Bill limits, may be severe degraded by proximity to a high-speed railway, and it might prove to be more beneficial to site the replacement well away from the offending noise and visual intrusion.

What is clear is that the policy has caused anger to many landowners who have seen the threat of losing land for the construction of HS2 and then have suffered insult heaped on injury to be told that further land – sometimes of high-grade agricultural quality – will be taken for compensatory planting to replace the habitat value of the land lost to construction. It is also blatantly the case that, even if the Promoter was to concede that much higher replacement ratios were in order for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland, he would surely be strapped to find space within the Bill limits for all the necessary planting.

From his point of view, the attraction of the Promoter’s approach is transparently clear: he has compulsory purchase powers available to him for all of the land within the Bill limits, and so is able to dictate where planting will go without the danger of protracted negotiations and without encountering problems of commercial supply and demand pressures possibly driving up prices.

The alternative that the Woodland Trust “and many other people are proposing is landscape scales compensation outside the Bill limits” by means of entering into “voluntary agreements”. The Trust’s witness, its Senior Conservation Adviser Richard Barnes, gave examples of schemes – he cited the Environment Bank and AB Agri – where “real landowners” have registered to host offset habitat creation on their land on a voluntary basis, but “using conservation covenants or other such voluntary, but legally and financially binding, agreements”. In theory, such compensatory planting could be miles away from HS2; even in other parts of the world in the extreme. Select Committee Member Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, himself as farmer, told Mr Barnes that he liked his “voluntary approach much better than HS2’s compulsory approach in some areas” (see footnote 2). He would have no doubt had in mind that most farms contain corners where commercial production is not really viable, and that habitat creation was a potential way to derive an income from otherwise unprofitable land – in many cases, such Cinderella ground is likely to be far more suited to habitat planting that high-enriched prime farmland. Mr Barnes was happy to concur (see footnote 3):

“… we agree that you shouldn’t be taking up prime agricultural land for the compensation for HS2. We feel it’s better done and you’ll get better results for biodiversity, and better results for farming, if you are to do it through voluntary schemes …”

The other important advantage claimed by Mr Barnes from having a freer hand in the siting of habitat recreation is the potential that it could be located where it “would provide better connectivity and landscape resilience” in line with the Lawton principles (see footnote 4).

Mr Clifton-Brown returned to this theme when the time came for the Promoter’s Counsel, James Strachan QC, to make his pitch. Remarking that the Committee had seen “lots of petitioners … complaining about land to compensate for land that HS2 is acquiring from them”, the MP asked the silk (see footnote 5):

“Does HS2, as a matter of course, adopt Mr Barnes’ policy of trying to find landowners that actually would be more than happy to have planting on their land and therefore requiring less compensatory land to be compulsory acquired against the owner’s wishes along the line?”

In response, Mr Strachan read out an assurance that the Promoter has provided to the Woodland Trust (see footnote 6):

“Provided it doesn’t increase project costs, and subject to obtaining the necessary consents and permissions, the nominated undertaker will consider any reasonable and timely opportunities that arise to undertake enhancements of existing ancient woodland outside the Bill limits as an alternative to providing compensation as authorised by the Bill and consider new opportunities where reasonable practicable to maximise biodiversity gain.”

Students of the assurances that have been given by the Promoter will, I am sure, recognise a familiar set of caveats that serve to render the assurance almost worthless. The Trust’s barrister, Reuben Taylor QC, pointed out, in particular, “the limitation about not increasing cost”, which is indicative, I feel, of the peremptory approach that HS2 Ltd appears to have to the protection of our natural environment. Mr Taylor also pointed out that, in the assurance, the Promoter had made “no commitment to increase the amount of planting beyond that which is already within the project”, which the trust regarded as inadequate (see footnote 7).

On a slightly more positive note, Mr Strachan did say that the assurance “has to be viewed alongside what will be done specifically for particular landowners where there’s the opportunity to discuss compensation measures in one location and potentially transferring them to other locations within their own landownership” (see footnote 6). Whilst such ad hoc arrangements could alleviate some of the problems associated with the Promoter’s current policy, it is by no means a complete solution to the issues that the Woodland Trust identified.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. The Woodland Trust’s hearing made be viewed from 11:45hrs in the video and is reported from paragraph 306 in the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016. The quotation is taken from paragraph 336 of the transcript.
  2. See paragraphs 344 and 347 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016.
  3. See paragraph 348 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016.
  4. See paragraph 340 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016
  5. See paragraph 446 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016.
  6. See paragraph 447 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rd February 2016.
  7. See paragraph 483 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 3rdFebruary 2016.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Commons HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by LesF on July 18, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Peter, I tried to email you but it bounced back. Have you changed from your ntl address? It’s about the abandonment of Sheffield Meadowhall station and the substitution of 1 or 2 trains/hr via Sheff Midland for the 5 tph that would have stopped at M’hall, and generally about the Commons Accounts Committee HS2 hearings on 11th July.

    Reply

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