The case for Ancient Woodland, as made in the Lords

During the HS2 debate in the House of Lords Baroness Young of Old Scone set out the case for ancient woodland. With today being Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, it’s worth remembering that these woodlands have been in place since the day of Elizabeth I’s reign.

Lords Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman-designate of the Woodland Trust, president of a local wildlife trust and chancellor of Cranfield University, a foremost international seat of engineering learning, in which context I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mair, and welcome him as a distinguished engineer to our gatherings here today.

I am not against HS2 but I am in favour of ancient woodland. I recognise the need to improve the infrastructure of the UK as a fundamental contribution to economic development for the future, but we surely ought now to be better at it, without trashing our environment. We have got better; when I first joined the environment movement 25 years ago, about 15% of our sites of special scientific interest were being damaged each year, mostly—might I say—by publicly funded infrastructure projects. Over the past 25 years, that figure has reduced to less than 1% of SSSIs being damaged. Crossrail was a controversial project but real accommodation was made between the promoters, the contractors and the environmental movement and there was real delivery on the ground of environmental benefit. It is therefore rather mystifying how on earth HS2 Ltd has made such a hash of this project and is planning to drive the route through 34 ancient woodland sites.

Does that matter? The Minister said that he was proud that HS2 had not demolished a single grade 1 listed building. Ancient woodlands are the grade 1 listed buildings of the environment. They are the richest terrestrial habitat for wildlife. It is not just about the trees, it is about birds, plants, butterflies, beetles and, most distinctively, those undisturbed soil communities of fungi, mycorrhizae and micro-organisms that have been maturing away for between 400 and 10,000 years, and it is about the lost fragments of the wild wood that once covered our entire country after the last ice age. To qualify as ancient woodlands, they need to have had continuous tree cover and largely undisturbed soils since at least 1600. They are therefore the equivalent of grade 1 listed buildings. They are the cathedrals of conservation, but they have been reduced to a fragment of their former extent. Only 2% of the land area of the UK is now covered by ancient woodland and it is heavily threatened by a range of threats.

Ancient woodland is not just important, it is irreplaceable. It is acknowledged as such in planning guidance and the National Planning Policy Framework, although it is not strongly enough protected by that document. Natural England and the Forestry Commission have also clearly stated in their guidance that ancient woodland is irreplaceable. The Government’s strategy,Biodiversity 2020, includes the statement:

“We are committed to providing appropriate protection to ancient woodlands”,

and the Government’s policy statement, Keepers of Time, said:

“The existing area of ancient woodland should be maintained”.

Yet we still have 34 irreplaceable, ostensibly protected ancient woodland sites being damaged by HS2. They are equivalent to the size of 49 football pitches and some of them are being damaged not by the permanent railway but by temporary works of its creation. In such cases, 1,000 years of complex ecosystems, history and heritage are being swept away, for example, for a temporary haul route. We clearly have not got the balance right—I thought that, as a Government and as a nation, we had already cracked it. I ask the Minister for assurance that some really key issues will be addressed both in Committee and at subsequent stages of the Bill, so that we can have a world-class project that also delivers world-class environmental outcomes.

What are the issues? First, HS2 was very slow in identifying the ancient woodlands along the route. Only half had been identified by the time the environmental statement was finished. That is not good enough. We need to make sure that in the very early stages of designing the route, everything is known about these protected sites that needs to be known, so that measures can be taken to avoid as many of them as possible and to put in adequate mitigation where possible. It may be too late now to change the route because of the constraints of the hybrid Bill system, but we still have phase 2 of HS2 and HS3 coming forward and we need the methodology to be revised and published as a matter of urgency so that, when phase 2 of HS2 and HS3 come along, we do a better job of identifying these very precious, irreplaceable sites.

The second issue is the bored tunnel. The extension of the tunnel through the Chilterns AONB is very much welcomed. The fact that it will be lengthened will save a number of ancient woodlands, but it is not enough; we need further lengthening. The further lengthening that is being called for by the AONB authorities would save more ancient woodland and protect the AONB. I do not believe that there has been adequate scrutiny of the costs of the full tunnel to ensure that its rejection on cost grounds is legitimate. There is still the possibility of other tunnel solutions for the protection of irreplaceable ancient woodlands, which should not be dismissed on cost grounds and should be examined properly. We need to heed the warnings of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, about the tyranny of cost-benefit.

As I said, the constraints of the hybrid Bill process mean that it is very difficult at this stage to challenge the route selection and consider alternatives, but HS2 Ltd could do a better job on providing so-called compensatory habitat for ancient woodland lost. When HS2 Ltd was questioned by the special Select Committee in the other place, it was unable to provide a figure of how much woodland planting would be required in direct response to the ancient woodland loss. There is published Defra biodiversity off-setting methodology which says that for the highest-quality habitats there should be a 24:1 ratio in terms of replacement habitats. That is for replaceable habitats and in the case of ancient woodland we are talking about irreplaceable habitats, so we certainly will be pressing for at least 30:1 for these irreplaceable habitats. That will not be a replacement but it will be a significant biodiversity and habitat gain. HS2 Ltd says it is constrained by the amount of land available for compensation inside the area covered by the Bill. We believe that HS2 could be far more innovative, as suits a flagship project of world stature, and that it could find compensation outside the Bill area through a variety of voluntary but none the less legally and financially binding schemes, such as conservation covenants.

Perhaps I might deal with a red herring. One of the proposals from HS2 Ltd is translocation—digging up the whole wood and its soils and toddling it across to somewhere else. I certainly believe that this technique should continue to be tried but it is not yet proven to be effective and it certainly will not recreate ancient woodland. What makes it worse is that any wood created this way has no statutory protection at all. If this desperate measure is deployed, the Bill should be amended to give legal protection to woodlands planted on translocated soils.

Of course, as well as the 34 ancient woodlands directly affected by phase 1, a further 29 are indirectly affected due to their close proximity to the construction works. The Bill needs to be absolutely clear that buffering arrangements should be provided against impacts on ancient woodlands from the construction works—dust, noise, nitrous oxide deposition, light—all of which threaten ancient woodland species.

The project is aiming for “no net loss of biodiversity”. HS2 Ltd has tried to demonstrate that there will be no net loss of biodiversity. Ancient woodland is irreplaceable so there will be a net loss, whatever happens, and I advise and urge HS2 to give up trying to pretend that there will be no net loss of biodiversity. I also believe that ancient woodland should be removed from the no net loss calculation because including it within that calculation implies that the loss can be compensated for and sets a precedent for future assaults on ancient woodland of all kinds, including in phase 2 and HS3.

This is a totemic project in the UK. It is very visible to the world. It is a shame that HS2 Ltd has not done a good job on the environmental protection case. It has failed to take expert advice on compensation, methodologies and translocation, but keeps on saying that it has exercised its professional judgment, in spite of the fact that both statutory agencies and expert NGOs have been telling it otherwise. That is a real shame for a project of this nature. I believe the Government are sincere in wanting to deliver the best possible environmental outcomes from this project so they must insist that HS2 does better, including taking up some of the more innovative solutions that organisations such as Natural England and the Woodland Trust have offered.

We must not set a poor precedent for the mass of future development in infrastructure, housing and commercial development that we hope to see with the growth of our economy and that we anticipate will move the UK forward. This is a seminal project and will set many precedents. At the moment the precedent it is setting is not a good one. I urge the Minister to take account of that in the further stages of the Bill and in listening to the outcome of the Select Committee, and I hope that the special Select Committee will also do so.

Briefly, I support my noble friends Lord Rosser and Lord Stevenson in their concerns about the powers of the special Select Committee. It will be very bad for democracy if many people submit petitions and they are not adequately considered by the Select Committee. It is important that right at the beginning of the Select Committee’s work it is absolutely clear what its powers are so that people can know what expectations to have.

We have an opportunity to deliver world-class infrastructure in HS2 but if it is not to tarnish its reputation, it must deliver world class for the environment, and in my view that remains to be grasped.

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