Cutting out the old wood, part 5

(… continued from Cutting out the old wood, part 4, posted on 22 Dec 2016).

The Woodland Trust’s request that HS2 Ltd should achieve a 30:1 compensation ratio for ancient woodland that would be lost to HS2, as had been recommended by Natural England (NE), was hotly discussed when Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Trust, was cross-examined in front of the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee by Tim Mould QC, Lead Counsel for the Promoter.

Achieving that recommended ratio would require around 900 hectares of new woodland to be created; about 700 hectares more than is currently planned. The canvassing that NE had undertaken in connection with its inquiry into the HS2 no net loss calculation had indicated “strong support for an approach that allows for compensation to be provided through voluntary agreements that extend beyond the immediate route corridor”. Whilst NE fully grasped that “there is no scope to extend the area of compensation land formally encompassed by the [HS2 Phase 1] scheme” its report opined that “moving away from the constraints of the Bill area would open up options …” (see footnote 1).

In the evidence-in-chief that he gave to the Committee on behalf of the Woodland Trust, Richard Barnes indicated that the Trust also supported a voluntary approach that was not confined to the Bill limits, and referred to “a misconception that the Trust [was] making a case for such compensation that … would be at the expense of prime agricultural land or disrupt local businesses”. On the contrary, he was able to identify a significant supporter for the concept that he was advancing, reporting to the Committee that “the CLA (the Country Land and Business Association Ltd) agree that compensatory habitat proposals delivered outside the Bill limits could reduce land take in most sensitive areas for businesses and deliver better results for biodiversity” (see footnote 2).

In its report, NE identifies two “possible approaches” that HS2 Ltd might take to secure the additional compensation planting: “direct negotiations and agreements with interested landowners”, or “the more formal use of offsetting providers, either through existing schemes such as that established in Warwickshire or a bespoke approach for HS2” (see footnote 3). It is important to realise that neither of these approaches would necessarily require HS2 Ltd to purchase any additional land and, as Mr Barnes had been at pains to point out, this was certainly not the way that the Warwickshire pilot had operated, where “voluntary conservation covenants with third party landowners” had been employed (see footnote 4).

When Mr Mould got his chance to cross-examine Mr Barnes, it became worrying apparent that the silk, and probably therefore also his client, had not entirely grasped what was being proposed by the Woodland Trust (in line with the NE recommendations and with the support of the CLA).

Mr Mould put it to the Woodland Trust witness that both of the two alternatives ways of securing compensation planting that had been suggested by NE “would demonstrably [require an] additional provision of great magnitude” (see footnote 5). Just why he should say this is unclear to me: it is surely apparent from the report and transcript extracts reproduced above that neither NE, nor the Woodland Trust, was suggesting any changes to the Bill limits and Mr Barnes was quick to remind him that the Trust was proposing the use of “voluntary conservation covenants with third party landowners along the route”, which “don’t involve the transfer of land ownership” (see footnote 6). Incomprehensibly, Mr Mould snapped that this rather crucial correction was, “nothing to the point” (see footnote 7).

It soon emerged, however, just why HS2 Ltd was fixated with keeping compensation planting within the Bill limits. The attraction is that acquisition of land within the Bill limits would be under compulsory purchase terms, removing any choice about whether to sell from the landowner and, with that, largely frustrating any ability to negotiate on price. As Mr Mould put it, without HS2 Ltd being able to resort to compulsory purchase, landowners could “demand a price for planting that would be entirely at their choice” (see footnote 8). Again, Mr Barnes was able to correct this misapprehension, pointing out to the silk that the Environment Bank “have established rates and costs” and that “in terms of new woodland planting, they do have a cost and rate for those voluntary conservation covenants” (see footnote 9).

Earlier in the session, Mr Barnes had been able to tell the Committee that, if figures that he had received from the Environment Bank were correct, securing 40 hectares of additional woodland planting using conservation covenants would cost about £5million. So, on a pro rata basis, the additional 700 hectares required to bring the compensation ratio up to the NE-recommended 30:1 would cost around £90million (see footnote 10).

In view of the emphasis that Mr Mould had placed upon the costs of the acquisition of land, it is fairly obvious that, aside from the confusion that the Promoter’s Lead Counsel had demonstrated, the chief stumbling block to meeting the compensation standard recommended by NE is cost. This racing certainty is surely sufficient justification for the charge made by Mr Barnes, and reported by me in part 4, that “the promoter is still trying to trade off the loss of ancient woodland against costs”.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 10.20 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  2. See paragraph 315 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  3. See paragraph 10.21 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  4. See paragraphs 454 and 456 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  5. See paragraph 453 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016. I have corrected the text of the transcript to record what Mr Mould actually said as revealed by the video of the session.
  6. See paragraphs 454 and 458 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  7. See paragraph 459 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016
  8. See paragraph 455 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  9. See paragraph 456 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  10. See paragraph 317 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.

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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