Cutting out the old wood, part 6

(… continued from Cutting out the old wood, part 5, posted on 26 Dec 2016).

In its report on its inquiry into the HS2 no net loss (NNL) calculation Natural England (NE) concedes that the “level of compensation proposed by HS2 Ltd for ancient woodland is – if judged in terms of a ratio of lost and created habitat – at the upper end of current practice and may well exceed that provided by other development and infrastructure projects” (see footnote 1).

In the evidence-in-chief that he gave to the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee on behalf of the Woodland Trust, Richard Barnes, Senior Conservation Advisor at the Trust, noted that the Environment Secretary had, only a couple of months previously, “repeated the Government’s manifesto commitment to be the first generation to leave our environment better than when we found it since the Industrial Revolution” (see footnote 2). Mr Barnes went on to say (see footnote 3):

“If Phase One, in its current form, gets Royal Assent in January, this ambition will be in tatters within four months of that being restated in September …”

Although these two views might appear to be contradictory, they are consistent on the basis of the assumption, held in some enlightened quarters, that “current practice” is just not good enough, and that the reality is certainly falling far short of the rhetoric of our political leaders. This analysis appears to be in line with NE’s view, because the NNL inquiry report comments that large scale development projects “will need to do more than the bare minimum and instead they should set exemplar standards for others to follow” (see footnote 4). According to NE, “the nature and scale of the [HS2] project is such that Natural England considers it should also be an exemplar of biodiversity conservation being delivered through growth” and adds that its report identifies “emerging opportunities that could make HS2 an exemplar project, enabling it to go further in fully adhering to UK biodiversity policy, contributing to UK biodiversity targets, and demonstrating good practice” (see footnote 5). So NE clearly doesn’t think that current practice is good enough, and is marking HS2 Ltd’s card “must do better”.

As far as the aspiration of HS2 becoming an exemplar project is concerned, it starts with one distinct disadvantage, which is the destruction of around 30 hectares of irreplaceable ancient woodland that Phase 1 requires. Although some, at least, of this destruction is avoidable, the Lords Select Committee has told us that it is too late to do anything about that, as the Third Reading in the House of Commons has given legislative approval to this environmental vandalism. Perhaps because of this, I detect a sense in the NE report of giving up on Phase 1 and proceeding on the basis that “lessons learnt from the Phase 1 approach to biodiversity compensation should be identified and applied to Phase 2 of the scheme” (see footnote 6).

Whilst, because Phase 1 entails the irrevocable destruction of irreplaceable habitat, it cannot assist the Environment Secretary with her aim to “leave our environment better than when we found it”, I do not see this as a reason to accept the current unsatisfactory biodiversity conservation proposals for Phase 1. On the contrary, it appears to me that this makes it even more important to adopt all of the NE recommendations and to improve the Phase 1 proposals to satisfy them as far as is possible.

In particular, since, as I reported in part 2, the loss of ancient woodland “causes loss to biodiversity, which cannot be mitigated or compensated” (see footnote 7), it is particularly imperative that HS2 Ltd is not allowed to ignore the NE recommendation to plant 30 hectares of new woodland for every one of ancient woodland lost. I do not agree with the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, that finding the 700 hectares, or so, of land to accommodate the additional planting that satisfying the NE recommendation entails represents “a most onerous commitment” (see footnote 8).

According to Mr Barnes “the Government’s commitment is to have 5,000 hectares of new woodland planted in England every year” and his own organisation, the Woodland Trust, is planting nearly 300 hectares at just one site, Hartwell, and is “committing to plant 64 million trees by 2025” (see footnote 9): in this context 700 hectares does not seem a big ask, particularly since the Woodland Trust has identified a practical way of achieving this target using voluntary conservation covenants.

In the course of the Woodland Trust appearance in front of the Lords Select Committee, Tim Mould QC promised that the Government would use the “engagement” required to develop Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan “to consider how to compensate for losses to our irreplaceable ancient woodland and other habitats drawing on [a] natural capital approach”. Whilst Mr Barnes welcomed this news, which he advised he hadn’t heard before, he said that he still felt that, in the interim, that adopting the 30:1 recommendation would be a “good message [for HS2 Ltd] to send” (see footnote 10).

Bearing in mind the extent of the damage that Phase 1 is due to cause to our ancient woodland stock, I agree most strongly with Mr Barnes: it seems to me the very least that HS2 Ltd should be doing. I feel that we need proposals with a little more substance to them than the jam tomorrow that Mr Mould was offering and the uncertain benefits that the “natural capital approach” may, or may not, bring.

The full adoption of the NE recommendations for Phase 1 would help redress the current failure by HS2 Ltd to adhere to the polluter pays principle (see footnote 11), would signal the level of commitment to ancient woodland that both NE and the Woodland Trust are seeking and would serve as a suitable exemplar for future projects.

(To be concluded …)


  1. See paragraph 10.14 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  2. The Environment Secretary’s remark was made in a speech made on 16thSeptember 2016, which she delivered at the launch of the report State of Nature: this report pools data and expertise from more than 50 nature conservation and research organisations.
  3. See paragraph 394 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  4. See paragraph 10.5 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  5. See paragraph 10.3 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  6. See paragraph 10.34 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  7. This is the verdict of the Woodland Trust’s Counsel, Reuben Taylor QC, as recorded in paragraph 13 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  8. See paragraph 7 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  9. See paragraphs 314 and 391 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  10. See paragraphs 473 and 474 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  11. In environmental law, the polluter pays principle is enacted to make the party responsible for producing pollution responsible for paying for the damage done to the natural environment – see the Wikipedia article on the subject.

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.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by RW Waller on December 30, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Peter As per usual a really important piece. There must be an archive of all the blogs you have written to prove the folly of this project when the history is written. Thank you. Roger >


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