Cutting out the old wood, part 7

(… continued from Cutting out the old wood, part 6, posted on 30 Dec 2016).

This blog series, based as it is on the evidence presented by the Woodland Trust to the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee, has concentrated on the way that the HS2 project has treated ancient woodland: it is important to recognise, however, that ancient woodland is not the only irreplaceable habitat encountered in the UK countryside. The publication that HS2 Ltd has produced to explain its no net loss (NNL) calculation metric identifies two additional irreplaceable habitats: mature lowland heathland, and lowland fen (see footnote 1). It is clear from an associated footnote (see footnote 2), however, that HS2 Ltd does not intend this to be a complete listing of irreplaceable habitat types and, indeed, Natural England (NE) tells us that “there is no agreed national list of irreplaceable habitats to use in offsetting projects in England” (see footnote 3).

I find this omission from the national knowledge bank to be surprising, to say the least, given the significance that irreplaceable habitat has to the concept of the preservation of biodiversity. However, the need to rectify matters appears to be recognised, as NE also tells us that (see footnote 4):

“It was a recommendation of the final report of the Defra offsetting pilot that Defra and Natural England produce updated technical guidance on biodiversity offsetting including an updated list of habitats that are defined as ‘irreplaceable’”.

I have, however, been unable to find any indication that an updated list of irreplaceable habitats has been published.

As far as the impacts of HS2 Phase 1 are concerned, NE reports that, whilst there is no lowland heathland affected, there is some lowland fen impinged upon (see footnote 5).

The NE recommendation is “that irreplaceable habitats … notably ancient woodland … are taken out of HS2 NNL metric reporting and published separately” (see footnote 6). The letter that HS2 Ltd sent to the Woodland Trust and The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, which I referred to in part 1, includes confirmation that “HS2 will remove ancient woodland from the metric and account for it separately” (see footnote 7). Elsewhere in the letter, HS2 Ltd agrees that “irreplaceable habitat should be removed from the calculation”, but does not identify any specific proposals to do this, nor are the habitat types named (see footnote 8). I fear that there is a risk of the need to account separately for irreplaceable habitats other than ancient woodland being forgotten, and trust that NE and the environmental NGOs will hold HS2 Ltd feet to the fire to ensure that this does not happen.

As I reported in One myth busted (posted 16 Nov 2016), the NE inquiry into the HS2 NNL calculation was commissioned at the instigation of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee: this Committee directed that “an independent third party” should carry out such a review and suggested NE as “one possibility” (see footnote 9). As the Government’s statutory advisor on the natural environment, NE is surely well-equipped to carry out this work, and one might have expected the Commons Select Committee, had it still been functioning, to accept the findings of its investigation.

As far as I am aware, the Lords Select Committee can make no claims to expertise in environmental matters and might have been expected to defer to NE’s opinions and recommendations. On the contrary, the Committee takes upon itself to reject two of NE’s principle recommendations: that irreplaceable habitat should be excluded from the NNL calculation; and, that compensation planting for lost ancient woodland should be at a scale of 30:1. The rejection of the former recommendation is even more surprising as it had already been accepted by HS2 Ltd, at least in respect of ancient woodland: unsurprisingly, the Committee’s report fails to mention this (see footnote 10).

The Committee compounds its environmental heresy by also attacking the messenger, in the guise of the Woodland Trust, criticising “the negativity of its evidence” and the Trust’s criticism of HS2 Ltd’s treatment of ancient woodland as “woefully inadequate”. In the same report paragraph, the Committee demonstrates a rather distorted version of the history of the project by crediting HS2 Ltd with the “achievement, by the extension of the Chiltern’s tunnel, in limiting the loss of ancient woodland in the AONB to less than one hectare” (see footnote 11): you may remember that the tunnel extension was proposed by petitioners in the Commons and was originally opposed by the Promoter (see footnote 12).

In a blog published on the Woodland Trust’s website, Richard Barnes poses the question, “Why such an unsympathetic Committee?” and attempts a possible answer:

“I have noted that several of the Committee members have a transport background, but few seemed to have any environmental background and this does not seem to reflect the balance of the House of Lords, who have several environmental champions and experts.”

Mr Barnes also hints, based upon the tone of the special session that the Committee held to launch its report, that rather than “listen to and impartially consider evidence from all petitioners” the Committee was unduly biased towards the Promoter’s view of things. I invite you to watch the session and make up your own mind (see footnote 13) – the proceedings do appear to be rather a lovefest between Chairman and Promoter’s Counsel, but this could just be indicating a surfeit of politeness, rather than being proof of unreasonable bias.

At least one of my colleagues has also alleged that there is evidence of a pro-HS2 Ltd bias in the Committee’s report (see footnote 14). There is certainly more than a whiff of this, I feel, but the Committee doesn’t entirely give a free run to the Promoter, making some criticisms of engagement, suggesting improving the scope of compensation and proposing a substantive amendment to the Bill restricting the Government’s power to grab land for development.

In his blog, Mr Barnes expresses a rather forlorn hope for the future:

“The Lords will be debate (sic) the report in their chamber, and hopefully other Lords will register their dissatisfaction with the proposals. After this it is up to the government to make sure HS2 is constructed in a manner consistent with government’s manifesto commitments and ambitions.”

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 3.1.4 and Table 1 in the report HS2 London-West Midlands Ecology Technical Note – Methodology for demonstrating no net loss in biodiversity, Arup/URS for HS2 Ltd. This report is reproduced as Appendix A to the publication HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation Methodology and results, HS2 Ltd, December 2015.
  2. The footnote, which reads “Mature heathland and lowland fen are included here as a precaution due to their known occurrence within proximity to the land required for the construction of the Proposed Scheme”, is numbered “10” and may be found on page 7 of HS2 London-West Midlands Ecology Technical Note – Methodology for demonstrating no net loss in biodiversity.
  3. See paragraph 3.6 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  4. See footnote 2 on page 22 of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric. The original recommendation may be found in Section 5.3 of Volume 1 of Evaluation of the Biodiversity Offsetting Pilot Programme Final Report, Collingwood Environmental Planning Limited and the Institute for European Environmental Policy for Defra, June 2014.
  5. See paragraph 3.2 and footnote 1 on page 21 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 the second paragraph of the section The Natural England review of HS2 Ltd’s No Net Loss metric in the letter of 22ndNovember 2016 from HS2 Ltd (R Hargreaves) to the Woodland Trust (V Bankes-Price).
  8. See the first paragraph of the section Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the HS2 Ltd letter of 22ndNovember 2016.
  9. See paragraph 303 in the publication Second Special Report of Session 2015-16 High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, House of Commons Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, 22ndFebruary 2016.
  10. See paragraphs 291 and 293 of the publication Special Report of Session 2016-17 High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, House of Lords Select committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, 15thDecember 2016.
  11. See paragraph 305 of Special Report of Session 2016-17 High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill.
  12. See, for example, paragraphs 409 and 410 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 21stJuly 2015.
  13. See the video of the session of the Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Thursday 15thDecember 2016.
  14. See Penny Gaines’ comments in the Stop HS2 blog, HS2 Chair Jumps Ship as Lords Deliver Final Report, posted 15thDecember 2015.

Acknowledgement: The HS2 Ltd letter of 22nd November 2016 is exhibits P5696(1) to P5696(7) on pages 362 to 368 in the Promoter’s bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee in connection with the petition submitted by the Woodland Trust.

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