Wood you credit it?

I reported in my blog It should be child’s play, part 2 (posted 15 Sep 2015) that a House of Commons written answer in July that year had advised that Natural England had added a number of woods affected by Phase 1 of HS2 to the Ancient Woodland Inventory (AWI) and that, consequentially, these were now officially recognised as ancient woodland. The circumstances that had led to this reclassification were alluded to in the evidence that Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Woodland Trust, subsequently gave to the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee (see footnote 1), but I failed to recognise the significance of what was said until a more expansive explanation was given, again by Mr Barnes, recently to the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee and the penny dropped (see footnote 2). What had been exposed by Mr Barnes was a particular example of what he regarded as “poor practice” (see footnote 3), and was clearly indicative of a failure by HS2 Ltd to apply the standard of care for our environment that should be expected from the promoter of a major engineering project – one that apparently aspires to be an “exemplar” project.

This putative lack of diligence was perhaps made all the worse in Mr Barnes’ mind by a Promoter’s exhibit P4572(3) that he referred to, on which HS2 Ltd claims that the additions to the AWI were made “as a result of heritage studies undertaken by HS2 Ltd”. Mr Barnes told the Lords HS2 Select Committee that “this isn’t the case” and treated them to “a quick précis” of the story behind the additions, backed-up by his full written evidence, including copies of minutes and correspondence (see footnote 4).

Mr Barnes told the Committee that “Natural England told HS2 Ltd to identify ancient woodland that is less than two hectares and, therefore, wouldn’t [necessarily] be on the ancient woodland inventory” (see footnote 4). In his written Proof of Evidence he claims that this request was made as long ago as 2011, but was able to furnish evidence that the need for the assessment of small woodlands was certainly discussed between Natural England and HS2 Ltd in August 2013 (see footnote 5).

Mr Barnes also told the Committee that HS2 Ltd “told Natural England that there was none [i.e. affected ancient woodland not already on the AWI]” and that correspondence that the Trust had seen “shows that the Natural England staff thought that this was ‘highly dubious’ that there was no additional woodland under two hectares” (see footnote 4 and footnote 6).

Now it was fairly common knowledge that HS2 Ltd encountered some reluctance by landowners to allow them access to carry out ecological surveys, so perhaps this could account for its signal failure to identify ancient woodlands that were not listed on the AWI. That these undoubted access problems might be a valid excuse was, however, effectively ruled out by what Mr Barnes had to tell the Lords Select Committee next. He reported that a Woodland Trust volunteer had been set to work on the task, and that “after three months of work” had “identified 20-plus candidate ancient woodlands” that the Trust had “sent to Natural England”. As a result, Natural England had made a list of “small ancient woodlands to add to their ancient woodland inventory” (see footnote 7).

What Mr Barnes then went on to tell the Committee made the claim by HS2 Ltd in P4572(3) that it was the initiator of the move to add woodlands to the AWI look, frankly, rather sick. Mr Barnes revealed that “HS2 Ltd disputed [the addition of] these woodlands [to the AWI] and, uncommonly, Natural England agreed that HS2 could go (sic) further work which nonetheless confirmed the 14 that have been added to the inventory” (see footnote 7).

The conclusion that Mr Barnes presented to the Committee was (see footnote 8):

“This caused a significant delay in woods being added to this inventory. Therefore, HS2 didn’t avoid those woodlands when selecting the route. They simply weren’t aware of them. They hadn’t done the work to identify those additional woodlands. And, also, no additional powers were sought, once these woodlands were identified, for more planting, more compensation.”

During Mr Barnes’ cross-examination by Tim Mould QC – an interrogation that Mr Barnes described in a subsequent blog as “feisty”, and which was certainly more robust than we have seen generally in the Lords proceedings (see footnote 9) – the silk gave a rather sanitised summary of the story that Mr Barnes had related (see footnote 10):

“Well, what I am told is that your Trust put forward a list of sites that you considered ancient, HS2 undertook a review of the sites, including a review of historic mapping and then agreed those which were ancient and should be added to the ancient woodland inventory. Consequently, they were brought into account as part of the supplementary environmental statement and the additional provision two environmental statement. Do you accept that account of the history of events?”

He did however, in what I take to be an admission of some failing on the part of his client, tell Mr Barnes that he could “have the shirt off my back, if you want it, in relation to that” (see footnote 11).

But the real question is what Mr Mould meant by “bring into account” in relation to the newly identified ancient woodlands. It would appear, on the basis of what Mr Barnes had said, that the ancient woodland status made little, if any, difference to the fate of these woodlands, just about as much difference as I feel ancient woodland status had made to the treatment meted out to any of the woodlands that stand in the way of HS2.

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 331 of the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 3rdFebruary 2016.
  2. The Woodland Trust hearing, during which Mr Barnes’s gave his evidence, may be viewed from 11:43hrs in the video and is reported from paragraph 271 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  3. See paragraph 300 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  4. See paragraph 302 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  5. See paragraph 31 in Proof of Evidence on Nature Conservation & Ecology pertaining to Ancient Woodland and Ancient Trees affected by HS2 Phase 1, Barnes, R on behalf of the Woodland Trust, November 2016. This document was submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee as exhibits A692(1) to A692(43). Mr Barnes’ claim may be found in paragraph 31 on exhibit A692(12). The minutes of the August 2013 meeting between Natural England and HS2 Ltd form exhibits A692(33) to A692(35), with the relevant minute being 3 on A692(34).
  6. The correspondence to which Mr Barnes was referring is an internal Natural England email exchange on 18thFebruary 2013 that is included in Appendix 3 to Proof of Evidence on Nature Conservation & Ecology pertaining to Ancient Woodland and Ancient Trees affected by HS2 Phase 1. In one of these emails, submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee as exhibits A692(37), A692(38) and A692(39), the Natural England originator is clearly quoting written clarifications provided by HS2 Ltd: in the section “4.3 and 4.4” on exhibit A692(39) the HS2 Ltd clarification concurs that the “identification of [smaller ancient woodland sites] was dependant on [their] own field surveys” and that HS2 Ltd “did not identify any [sites] that [they] believe would qualify as ancient woodland”. The “highly dubious” comment comes from an internal Natural England internal email sent in reply to the first an shown on exhibit A692(36).
  7. See paragraph 303 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  8. See paragraph 304 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  9. The cross-examination runs from 12:26hrs in the video of the session.
  10. See paragraph 479 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  11. See paragraph 485 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.

Acknowledgement: Exhibits A692(12) and A692(33) to A692(39) have been extracted from the bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee by the Woodland Trust and P4572(3) is a Promoter’s exhibit. At the time that this blog was first posted these exhibits were not available on the website of the Lords HS2 Select Committee, and I am indebted to the Woodland Trust for making them available to me.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Lords 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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