A stab in the dark, part 1

One of the few benefits that I have gained from my own personal Don Quixote crusade against HS2 is that it has got me back into the learning process in a big way. Virtually every day, it seems, I have delved into some new facet of one of the disciplines touched by the project, and have boldly – or perhaps foolishly – sallied into intellectual territory new to me. Of course, it is so easy to do this today, with the internet holding a library of information of truly global proportions, and with that miracle of cyber technology, the search engine, affording instant access to even the most esoteric recesses of human intellectual endeavour.

But I’m afraid that, as I am prone to, I am digressing: the point I am meandering towards is that a new snippet of information that came my way recently in the course of my researches is that Staffordshire was once a centre of salt production. Whilst the salt extraction industry in Staffordshire never approached anything like the scale of its neighbour Cheshire’s level of production, it made, nevertheless, an important contribution to the County’s economy from its beginnings in the 17th century up to as recently as August 1970, when all industrial production of salt ceased.

The industry has left its mark in some of the place names of the County: there is even a village called Salt, and other names including the word can be found, such as Salt Brook, Saltwell, Salterford and Salter’s Bridge. As is the case in Cheshire, the termination “wich” can also indicate places associated with the salt industry.

In Staffordshire salt was obtained by the open-pan evaporation of brine taken from below ground, a process that is facilitated by naturally-occurring underground brine streams. These streams serve to erode the deposits of salt, leading to geological instability, and also break through to the surface in places as salt springs, leading to the formation of the rare inland salt marsh habitat. Unsurprisingly, this habitat supports salt-tolerant, or halophyte, plants, which form an exceptionally specialised group containing, perhaps, around 2 per cent of all plant species. In the United Kingdom the conditions that lead to the formation of inland salt marsh are confined to the salt-producing counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Salt extraction and land reclamation have degraded and reduced the amount of this habitat over recent centuries, although the activities of the salt industry have also resulted in the creation of similar conditions around old brine pits and workings. The rarity of natural inland salt marsh has resulted in it being listed as a priority habitat in Annex 1 to Directive 92/43/EEC of the EU Council (see footnote 1).

According to the Joint Nature Conservation Council “Pasturefields Salt Marsh in the West Midlands is the only known remaining example in the UK of a natural salt spring with inland saltmarsh vegetation” (see footnote 2). For this reason this site, which lies about 5 miles north east of Stafford, has been granted Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status (see footnote 3).

Inconveniently for HS2 Ltd, Pasturefields occupies an area that is sandwiched between the River Trent and the Trent and Mersey Canal: it is inconvenient because, what HS2 Ltd clearly regards as the optimum route for its link up to Crewe, broadly following the valley of the River Trent as it passes to the east of Stafford, whilst not actually impinging directly upon the above-ground extent of the nature reserve, does pass close enough to ring alarm bells about possible, or even likely, impacts upon the hydrogeology. Any such changes in hydrogeology caused by HS2 may consequently directly impact upon the nature reserve by affecting the flow of brine.

Unlike other areas of important habitat along the route of HS2, the protection offered to Pasturefields by Directive 92/43/EEC and the UK’s commitments to the Natura 2000 network means that HS2 Ltd cannot blithely ignore any damage that its project may cause to the SAC. Indeed, the organisation’s response has been at the highest level of the mitigation hierarchy, opting to “avoid” the damage by realigning the route approximately one and three-quarter kilometres southwards, at considerable additional cost (see footnote 4).

You probably think that I should be overjoyed at this apparent victory for environmental protection legislation. Well I would be, but I’m not sure that the HS2 Ltd has demonstrated to any reasonable degree of doubt that this realignment really will avoid any impacts on the SAC, and am suspicious that project expediency has been the driver of the solution that has been proposed, rather than sound science.

In the remaining parts of this blog series I will explain why I think this.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. In Annex 1 the habitat type is identified as “Continental salt meadows”, with the Corine code 15.14, on page L 206/16 of Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, Official Journal of the European Communities.
  2. See the webpage for this site on the Joint Nature Conservation Council website. There is, in fact, another remnant of spring-fed salt marsh just south of Pasturefields, but this has only been afforded Local Wildlife Site (LWS) status.
  3. A Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is an area of habitat of a type listed in Annex 1 to Directive 92/43/EEC that is proposed by an EU Member State as a component site of the European ecological network known as Natura 2000, as required by the provisions of Article 4 of that Directive. A SAC that is an area of priority habitat is afforded protection from damage from development, except in the very exceptional circumstances permitted by Article 6(4), which requires that:
    “Where the site concerned hosts a priority natural habitat type and/or a priority species, the only considerations which may be raised are those relating to human health or public safety, to beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or, further to an opinion from the Commission, to other imperative reasons of overriding public interest.”
  4. The additional cost of the more southerly route is quoted by Jeremy Lefroy, the local MP, at £154million on page 9 of the document High Speed Rail 2 (Phase Two) Response to the Phase Two Route Consultation, Jeremy Lefroy MP, January 2014. However, Appendix A to that document, which is a paper presented on behalf of Ingestre with Tixall Parish Council, describes this figure, on page 22, as “almost certainly an underestimate”.

 

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