Cutting out the old wood, part 2

(… continued from Cutting out the old wood, part 1, posted on 10 Dec 2016).

At the very end of part 1 I accused HS2 Ltd of appearing to be happy to destroy irreplaceable habitats on the basis that the NNL metric was a handy get-out-of-jail-free card. This may seem to you to be uncharitable, and perhaps unfounded, but I feel that sufficient evidence of a very cavalier attitude to ancient woodland has surfaced now for that accusation to stick.

In the first place, there is the failure by HS2 Ltd to identify small ancient woods that I reported in my blog Wood you credit it? (posted 6 Dec 2016). Surely, an organisation that was more minded to save ancient woodland would have taken the Natural England (NE) request to identify ancient woods not already on the ancient woodland inventory more seriously.

Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Woodland Trust, provided a couple of examples that also illustrate the point in his Proof of Evidence that he submitted to the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee: these illustrations are displayed on the Woodland Trust’s exhibit A692(17). In paragraph 54 on this exhibit, Mr Barnes opines that a reappraisal of the location of the maintenance loop near Wormleighton “placing less emphasis on economic outcomes and more on the environmental impact of the scheme” could have saved 1.3ha of ancient woodland. In paragraph 56 he cites an example where the relocation of a major construction compound and tunnel portal by “a few hundred metres away from the wood could significantly reduce the impact of the works” upon Long Itchington ancient woodland and SSSI.

In the oral submission that I made to the Lords Select Committee earlier this year I reported that HS2 Ltd had identified two alternative horizontal alignments that avoided damage to South Cubbington Wood, but that “both were rejected” (see footnote 1). I willingly concede that the cutting through that wood has been designed to reduce the loss of woodland. However, this is an expensive mitigation measure, and gives fairly limited relief: I was able to point out to their Lordships that if HS2 Ltd had slightly more than doubled its mitigation spending here, and tunnelled under the wood, then this “could have secured total protection for the Wood” (see footnote 2).

On the positive side, Mr Barnes acknowledged in his oral evidence to the Committee that additional tunnelling proposed for the Chilterns AONB would save “nearly 10 hectares of ancient woodland”, but attributed this welcome relief to a proposal by the Commons Select Committee, rather than an initiative by HS2 Ltd (see footnote 3). Crucially, it was abundantly clear at the time that the motivation behind this move was to reduce the overall impact on the AONB, rather than to save ancient woodland.

The consequences of HS2 Ltd’s failure to avoid damage to ancient woodland were summed up neatly for the Lords Select Committee by Counsel to the Woodland Trust, Reuben Taylor QC (see footnote 4):

“HS2 does not avoid loss of ancient woodland, which is irreplaceable. It therefore causes loss to biodiversity, which cannot be mitigated or compensated. It therefore follows that HS2 causes a net loss to biodiversity.”

In 2011 the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) published Biodiversity 2020, subtitled A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services. This policy document sets the mission strategy for the next decade “to halt overall biodiversity loss, support healthy well-functioning ecosystems and establish coherent ecological networks, with more and better places for nature for the benefit of wildlife and people” and includes a specific commitment to “providing appropriate protection to ancient woodlands” (see footnote 5). The realisation that the largest engineering project that we are likely to see on these shores for the next few years will violate the aim to halt overall biodiversity loss, and the commitment to protect ancient woodlands, should surely be of concern to Defra.

In view of the significance of the recognition by HS2 Ltd that irreplaceable habitats should not be included in the NNL calculation, the Woodland Trust seeks recognition from the Government of the inevitable conclusion to which this leads in the form of a public statement, and has made the following request to the Lords Select Committee:

“The Secretary of State and HS2 Ltd should state publicly that it is acknowledged that Phase 1 of HS2 as a whole cannot achieve no net loss to biodiversity since the scheme involves loss of irreplaceable ancient woodland and the nominated undertaker will accordingly cease to assert that ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ has been achieved in relation to Phase 1 of HS2.”

As Reuben Taylor QC explained to the Committee (see footnote 4):

“That point is fundamental because, without it, this project will proceed to affect and result in loss to ancient woodland on a basis whereby it still purports to be able to achieve no net loss to biodiversity. That is, the Trust says, not actually achievable as an aim, simply because ancient woodland is lost in the process.”

Despite the unquestionable logic of this conclusion, HS2 Ltd has its corporate heels firmly dug in, and refuses to concede this point. On the contrary, in fact, on the very same morning that the Woodland Trust appeared before the Lords Select Committee, Peter Miller, Environment Director at HS2 Ltd, told the Committee that there was “a range of possibilities that can still address biodiversity and help get us to a ‘no net loss’ balance, past the deficit we’ve already indicated, but it may also present opportunities for a net gain” (see footnote 6).

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 359 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 18thJuly 2016.
  2. See paragraph 361 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 18th July 2016.
  3. See paragraph 497 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  4. See paragraph 13 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  5. See paragraph 8 of the Executive Summary and paragraph 2.16 in the publication Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), August 2011.
  6. See paragraph 219 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.

Acknowledgement: Exhibit A692(17) has been extracted from the bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee by the Woodland Trust. At the time that this blog was first posted the Woodland Trust exhibits were not available on the website of the Lords HS2 Select Committee, and I am indebted to the 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 are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are 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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