Cutting out the old wood, part 1

In my blog One myth busted (posted 16 Nov 2016) I reported that Natural England (NE) had recommended that losses of ancient woodland arising from HS2 should not be included in the general no net loss (NNL) calculation, but should be recognised separately as they were “non-tradable biodiversity resources”. I also reported the Government’s apparent failure to embrace this recommendation.

I am pleased to be able to update this assessment on the basis of information that came to light during some opening remarks made to the House of Lords Phase 1 HS2 Select Committee made by Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Justine Thornton QC. Referring to a letter from HS2 Ltd that had been delivered to The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust the previous day, Ms Thornton told the Committee that “HS2 will remove ancient woodland from the metric and account for it separately through an updated ancient woodland strategy” (see footnote 1).

A full understanding of what this move will mean will probably have to await the publication of the HS2 Ltd strategy document referred to by Ms Thornton, but I believe that there is still merit in considering some possible implications now, so this new blog series is my attempt to do that.

One unintended effect of removing the losses of ancient woodland from the negative side of the NNL calculation is that it will, presumably, require less in the way of offset habitat creation to achieve a zero balance: you may recall that I reported in One myth busted that the current iteration on the NNL calculation shows that Phase 1 of HS2 “would result in the reduction of approximately 3 per cent in ‘the number of biodiversity units’”. It would be a very unfortunate outcome if a move designed to benefit the environment actually resulted in less biodiversity offsetting being undertaken within the HS2 project, and so the new rules must ensure that this does not happen.

On this specific point, NE confirms that “separately accounting for irreplaceable habitats, designated sites and replaceable habitats will reduce the number of biodiversity units required by HS2 Ltd to achieve no-net loss for the replaceable habitats that are lost” and estimates this deficit reduction to be “from 1066.2 to 472.7 biodiversity units”, which it equates to “111.8 ha of newly created [high quality] woodland” (see footnote 2).

In its report on the HS2 NNL calculation, NE separates out “irreplaceable habitats and protected areas” from other habitat at risk from HS2 and identifies the former with “ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)”. NE’s recommendation that these assets “are taken out of the HS2 NNL metric” is made on the basis that “their inclusion gives the impression of tradability for non-tradable biodiversity resources” (see footnote 3). Opining that including “non-tradable habitats … is at odds with the fundamental principle of assigning a biodiversity value through a metric to enable trading”, NE explains that doing this “creates a perception of tradability that does not conform to the strict application of the principle of case specific and like-for-like compensation for irreplaceable habitats and protected areas” (see footnote 4). NE gives the example that “100 biodiversity units generated by irreplaceable habitat may be traded against 80 units generated by a replaceable habitat resulting in a perceived deficit of only 20 units, therefore masking the actual loss of irreplaceable habitat” (see footnote 5).

NE is quite clear how it wants HS2 Ltd to publish details of the losses and compensation measures for irreplaceable habitats separately (see footnote 6):

“Separate non-metric reporting for irreplaceable habitats and protected areas should include an explanation of how and where compensation is being provided and the considerations given to site-by-site compensation design, and should set that compensation in the context of legislation and national planning policy.”

It is significant that NE does not employ the term “offsetting” to describe new habitat creation in the context of the loss of irreplaceable habitats, but used the term “compensation”. This distinction is an important recognition that, as NE points out, “equivalent biodiversity and ecosystem services [to irreplaceable habitats] cannot be recreated in a project time frame” (see footnote 7) and so the biodiversity loss cannot be offset in realistic terms.

The inevitable conclusion of NE’s observations for the HS2 project was brought sharply to the attention of the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee recently when Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Woodland Trust, gave his evidence-in-chief on behalf of the Trust. He told their Lordships that, “if you impact on an irreplaceable habitat … you will invariably have a loss to biodiversity”. He continued (see footnote 8):

“You will not be able to say that the project as a whole, in its entirety, has no net loss. So, yes, if you’re aiming for those things, the best practice would be to avoid ancient woodland where at all possible.”

But, of course, far from seeking to avoid irreplaceable habitats, HS2 Ltd appears to have been happy to plough straight through them, safe, they thought, in the knowledge that by planting a few saplings they could restore the biodiversity stock and would be able to demonstrate that this had been achieved with their NNL metric.

How wrong they were – that particular article of faith appears to have been completely blown out of the water.

(To be continued …)


  1. See paragraph 18 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  2. See paragraph A13 in Appendix A (Sensitivity Analysis) to the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  3. See paragraph 6 in the Executive Summary of the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  4. See paragraph 10.28 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  5. See paragraph 3.7 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  6. See paragraph 3.21 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  7. See paragraph 3.5 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  8. See paragraph 382 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the Woodland Trust for making available to me a copy of the letter that they received from HS2 Ltd on the eve of their Lords petition hearing.

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.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by find better ways on December 10, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Not only HS2 but Greening demonstrating: A number of MPs demonstrated a lack of knowledge and experience. A Grand display of being short of knowledge and failure to take or ask for advice from people who know the subjects. Worrying that the UK is lost in woods too often. Merry Christmas and hoping Common Sense will prevail to address national priorities.


  2. Hi thank you for this blog. The information is valuable.
    I am petitioner 521 Arthur Daily Trips passenger boat and I am trying to save as much of the irreplacable habits along the Grand Union Canal, in the Colne Valley, Hillingdon London, as possible.
    Please take a look at our case. Video Monday 28th November, Parliament tv online, House of Lords, Highspeed Rail Select Committee. Its a 3 hour film starting with the fishermen, then the Colne Valley community interest company, the hillside residents, Harefield marina, the continuous cruiser boaters and the passenger boat.
    This is an important wetland, that we love and care for, and of principal importants to London.

    Much Respect
    Sarah Green
    Arthur Daily Trips


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