There follows the Hansard record of the 90 minute debate held this morning on HS2 and its effect on ancient woodlands proposed by Michael Fabricant and answered by the Transport Minister, Simon Burns:-
Westminster Hall, Wednesday 3 July 2013
[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]
High Speed 2 (Ancient Woodlands)
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):
I am grateful to have secured this important debate, which addresses the environmental impact of High Speed 2’s present route. Later I will specifically address the damage that will be wrought on our ancient woodland heritage—damage that will take literally hundreds of years to repair, if it can be repaired at all.
My constituents face being the unique recipients of both phase 1 and phase 2 of the HS2 project—a double whammy indeed. Its construction will cut through unspoiled countryside right across southern Staffordshire. There, and elsewhere along the route, HS2 will destroy our natural heritage, including some of the UK’s most precious natural assets, such as our ancient woodland, impacting, sadly, on wildlife and on the communities that cherish living in such a beautiful environment.
As I said in the Queen’s Speech debate earlier this year, HS2, as currently formulated, is causing an unnatural disaster in Staffordshire and huge problems in many other constituencies, not least those of Mr Speaker and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who is sitting beside me.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister and Members of the House might be aware, I fully support the principle of an additional north-south line to relieve congestion on the west coast main line. The congestion on that line can only get worse in the years to come, as petrol and diesel prices move inexorably upwards, driving commuters off the roads and on to trains. I also anticipate and hope that the spare capacity freed up by HS2 will eventually enable more direct fast train services from Lichfield Trent Valley down to London and up to the north-west. However, despite those benefits, I cannot bring myself to support a project whose route causes such environmental degradation and blight, particularly when other options could be explored—an issue to which I will return.
I do not, therefore, oppose HS2 on principle, but as I said in the Queen’s Speech debate, it feels as if the route has been almost deliberately designed to be as damaging as possible to rural England. We have chosen the Labour route instead of the one we favoured in opposition, which used existing transport corridors, as is the norm in continental Europe. The route also fails to link with HS1 or adequately with Heathrow airport, and nor does it provide a direct link to Birmingham New Street, relying instead on a footway. It is seriously flawed.
Thousands of homes are being blighted by the present route. The Government must be swift and generous with compensation, and I hope they will adopt the property bond referred to by the Secretary of State during the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.
Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):
My hon. Friend has touched a nerve by referring to the property bond. As he knows, my constituents, and particularly Hilary Wharf, who leads the HS2 Action Alliance, are really set on getting a property bond, as the fairest and most reasonable way of compensating people whose lives, businesses and houses are being destroyed by the project. Does he hope the Government will adapt the paving Bill in Committee to include a property bond?
I have discussed this with the Secretary of State, and he says he is open to the idea, although a number of practical difficulties need to be overcome. Providing that they are, however, I hope, as I said just now, that the Government will adopt the property bond, because it will give comfort to my right hon. Friend’s constituents and mine.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns):
May I give my hon. Friend the reassurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I gave during the Second Reading of the paving Bill? As a result of the 10th judicial review—we won the other nine—we will reconsult on the compensation schemes. Let me say categorically that consideration of, and consultation on, a property bond will be one of the options.
Sandra Osborne (in the Chair):
Order. May I remind hon. Members that the debate is about High Speed 2 and ancient woodlands, not the project as a whole?
I thank you, Mrs Osborne. That is, indeed, what I am getting on to.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con):
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is good news that the Government will reconsider the property bond, as we just heard from the Minister. However, does he agree that they must deal with blight now—because homes and, indeed, ancient woodlands are being blighted now—rather than in the future, when the line is built.
That is absolutely right. My hon. Friend and I are affected by phase 1 of the route. We have been living with this issue since before 2010, and my constituents have been living with it too. The issue is, therefore, urgent, and it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. However, let me get on to the main subject of the debate.
The compensation packages must be the same for both phases, because it would be totally wrong for people living south of Lichfield, who are affected by phase 1, to be treated differently from those in the north of my constituency, who are affected by phase 2.
The Woodland Trust has indicated that the preferred routes for both phases will cause loss or damage to at least 67 irreplaceable ancient woods, which are home to 256 species that are of conservation concern. Some lessons have been learned in the design of the phase 2 route, because the most devastating environmental impact occurs in the construction of the London-to-Lichfield route, or phase 1. However, that alone will damage 21 ancient woods, while noise and vibration will affect the delicate balance of a further 48 woods within 100 metres of the line.
Ancient woods are lands that have been continuously wooded since 1600. They form only about 2% of our land. Their unique, undisturbed soils form the UK’s richest habitats for wildlife. They just cannot be translocated, and, once destroyed, they are lost—in effect, for ever.
We cannot credibly lecture other countries on deforestation while taking a cavalier
approach to the loss of our own equivalent of the rain forest Ironically, given their support for such a destructive route, the Government fully recognise the unique place ancient woodlands hold in our society. The forestry policy statement published earlier this year notes:
“England’s 340,000 hectares of ancient woodlands are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including many rare species and habitats. They are an integral part of England’s cultural heritage and act as reservoirs from which wildlife can spread into new woodlands.”
As I indicated, my constituency is unique in that it will suffer the double whammy of construction during both phases of HS2. Phase 1 passes between Lichfield and Whittington below Fradley junction. Phase 2 joins the phase 1 route just below Fradley junction and travels through the constituency towards Stafford, passing Colton and the villages knows as the Ridwares. The phase 1 route will continue beyond the junction with phase 2 to join the west coast main line. The damage it will do is heartbreaking.
As a result of such extensive construction, three ancient woods in the constituency would be severely damaged. The line will pass directly through Ravenshaw wood, Slaish wood and Black Slough wood, while Vicar’s coppice, being only 62 metres from the line, would be damaged by noise and vibration during its construction—damage that, as I said, is irreparable.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the House. HS2 does not have any direct impact on my constituency, because I am a Northern Ireland Member, but none the less as a parliamentarian I have an interest in the environment, including what happens to ancient woodlands. I understand from the background information that four wildlife trust reserves, 10 sites of special scientific interest, 50 ancient woodlands and 84 local wildlife sites will be affected. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is not yet too late to give full consideration to the retention of habitat for wildlife including flora and mammals?
I have pleasure in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope indeed that the Minister will deal with that issue. The simple answer is no, it is not too late. I hope that the Government will rethink the route, because in my view it should not carve its way through previously unspoiled countryside, cherished by the communities who live in harmony with it. If it does, it will cause environmental damage not only to southern Staffordshire, as I have described, but to other sensitive areas such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), wanted me to point out, as, being a Minister, he cannot do so today, that South Cubbington wood in his constituency will be damaged too.
Not only does the plan fly in the face of common sense and environmental progress; it transgresses the Government’s own policies on protection of ancient woodland. Indeed, the forestry policy statement of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states categorically:
“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority.”
I am obliged again to my hon. Friend; he is very kind. He rightly mentioned that south Staffordshire and its ancient woodland are affected by the proposals. He mentioned Kenilworth and Southam, and between there and Lichfield is the Bourne valley in the Tamworth constituency, where ancient woodland will also be affected by the proposed route. The effect on the midlands, coming on top of the toll road and the extension to the A5, is damage to much ancient woodland. The Government must recognise that.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes his point powerfully and well. I hope that the Minister has listened to what he said. He is right to say that the west midlands has suffered, and I think that it has suffered in a way that has not been replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom.
In May, I tabled a question asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his own assessment of the impact of the proposed HS2 route on ancient woodland. The response that I received in the Official Report on 6 June at column 1224W seemed, sadly, to indicate a belief in Government that such destruction is a price worth paying. It also noted that certain mitigation measures were being proposed, including the construction of a tunnel to avoid one ancient wood and movement of a line to minimise land take within another. That is simply not good enough. When we consider the vast sums of public money being committed we realise that the damage is inordinately large. As a minimum, mitigation should be proportionate and applied comprehensively for any ancient woodland lost or damaged as a result of the project. That should be based on the Lawton principles on habitat networks and landscape scale impact already enshrined in the Government’s widely welcomed natural environment White Paper of 2011. If, as it is claimed, HS2 is meant to be a world-class transport project, it should demonstrate world-class practice when it comes to the avoidance of damage and the showcasing of the very best practice in mitigation.
Further insult has been added to injury by the publication of a poorly written, half-finished environmental statement, which neglected to include crucial ecological surveys
and assessments that are required for communities to respond effectively. The environmental statement sadly misunderstands the complexity and national significance of the habitats being damaged. For example, the summary states that
“at present there are no route-wide significant effects on habitats”.
Extraordinary. That is clearly not the case, given the national significance of ancient woodland, which is recognised in the national planning policy framework. I tabled another question in May—it appears at column 1224W in the Official Report of 6 June—about what discussions were taking place with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on minimising the impact of construction on ancient woodland. The evidence of the environmental statement is that there has been far too little such discussion, and the result is a statement that pays mere lip service to environmental protection.
It does not need to be this way. Done properly, HS2 would provide the Government with a golden opportunity to showcase the very best of British construction. However, if it is to be the world-class and truly green transport solution that it purports to be, far greater respect for the natural environment needs to be demonstrated, or the opportunity will sadly be lost.
In the light of the impacts that I have highlighted, I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister, and the Government, with whom I have had the honour of serving, to look again at the proposed route for HS2. In opposition, as I have said, my party championed a route that followed existing transport corridors, a tried and tested method used across Europe, which minimises environmental damage. I know that phase 2 of the route is an attempt to do that, but of course in southern Staffordshire it is not possible, because of the need to link to the existing and most environmentally damaging route: phase 1. That policy position is now, ironically, receiving favour from the current Opposition party, whose route the coalition Government have now adopted. It is incredible.
I call on my right hon. Friend, rather than cutting a destructive swathe through previously unblemished countryside, to think again and deliver a route that better respects the environment we all treasure. I hope that in his answer he will address the following six questions of which, Mrs Osborne, I have given him prior notice—so he has no excuse not to answer. He is waving his speech, so I hope he will answer these questions in detail: first, will he look further at how the loss of ancient woodland can be minimised? Secondly, what assessment has been made of how many hectares of ancient woodland will be lost? Thirdly, how much of the £33 billion—of course, that sum has now gone up—will be spent on seeking to avoid loss of woodland and on the creation of new woodland as part of the mitigation process? Of course, I pointed out earlier that ancient woodland cannot be replaced overnight. Ancient woodland is woodland formed in 1600 and before.
No, it is not; ancient woodland is described as existing from 1600.
I will not give way to my right hon. Friend, simply because I think others want to take part in the debate. He can answer that point, if he wishes, in his speech.
My fourth question is whether my right hon. Friend will undertake to involve DEFRA and environmental organisations more fully. Fifthly, what say and involvement will communities have in any mitigation planting? Finally, will he ensure that the full environmental impact assessment, when it is published alongside the Bill, will be a major improvement on the somewhat inadequate work that was released earlier in the spring? I thank you for your indulgence, Mrs Osborne, and look forward to hearing from others in the debate.
Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con):
It is a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and I welcome you to the Chair. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on initiating the debate and speaking so well in opening it. I am glad to welcome the Transport Minister; however, perhaps he will understand my disappointment, because although I am sure he will show that he has great expertise and has been briefed perfectly, it would have been nice to have an Environment Minister present to engage with a subject that is specifically environmental. Much more cross-departmental co-operation is needed on the project, because it is not only the Department for Transport that should be putting its head on the block over HS2.
I want to take up a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield made. I just happen to have looked, on my hand-held device, at the definition of “ancient woodland”. It is a term used in the United Kingdom to refer specifically to woodland that has existed continuously since 1600 or before, in England and Wales, or 1750 in Scotland. Before those dates, planting of new woodland was uncommon, so a wood present in 1600 is likely to have developed naturally.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a point that I would have made to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), which is that 1600 is an arbitrary date; it does not mean that every woodland created in 1601 or 1602 is not necessarily an ancient woodland. That is the simple point that I was making.
I know my right hon. Friend the Minister is getting on, but none of us were around in 1600 to see when those woods were planted. I would be interested to know when he last walked in ancient woodland.
My right hon. Friend might be interested to know that I walked both in her constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield in a private visit by car all the way from the M25 up to Warwickshire along the line of route.
Which of my ancient woods was it?
I was talking in particular about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield. I went through the whole route from the M25, so I saw not only ancient woodlands but other areas of outstanding natural beauty. I also saw some water features, particularly near the proposed elevated sections near the M25.
I would be delighted if the Minister had walked in Farthings wood or Mantle’s wood, if he had looked at the River Chess or the River Misbourne, our famous chalk streams, or even if he were uniquely familiar with all the details of the area of outstanding natural beauty. I am glad that he paid a private visit, and I invite him to make a public visit and come to meet some of our excellent conservation people who spend a lot of time maintaining one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.
I was first elected to the House 21 years ago, and 20 years ago I found myself involved in the most amazing campaign to save Penn wood at Penn street. I believe that Penn wood was the first wood saved by the Woodland Trust. We collected donations from across the country to save the wood, which is still there to this day. I pay tribute to the Woodland Trust, which, among other conservation organisations, has briefed me for today’s debate. Saving Penn wood 20 years ago brought me much more closely in touch with our natural habitat in the Chilterns.
The Woodland Trust has analysed the number of woods threatened by the HS2 project—33 ancient woods are under threat and 34 ancient woods are at risk within 200 metres of the proposed line. Given the threat posed by, say, climate change to the natural environment, not least to ancient woodland, the Woodland Trust also supports the move to develop a low-carbon economy. However, a transport solution that inflicts such serious damage on our natural heritage, as the current route does, can never really be described as green. The Government’s preferred routes for the phases of the scheme will cause loss or damage to at least 67 irreplaceable ancient woods. As the Woodland Trust has said to me, that is too high an environmental price to pay, and the route should be reconsidered in light of those facts alone.
Why is ancient woodland important, and why does it matter? We have already established that ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield rightly says that ancient woodland forms only 2% of our country. We are considering the largest infrastructure project since time immemorial, and it will damage that precious, small percentage that comprises our ancient woodland that still exists. Ancient woodlands have unique, undisturbed soils, and they form the UK’s richest wildlife habitats. They support at least 256 species of conservation concern. According to Natural England, nearly 50% of the ancient woodland that survived beyond the 1930s has already been lost. We should not threaten that small, precious piece of our environment in 2013.
There appears to be a huge conflict in Government policy. There is, for example, a Government policy to protect ancient woodland, and my hon. Friend referred to the recent forestry policy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The January 2013 policy statement reads:
“England’s 340,000 hectares of ancient woodlands are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including many rare species and habitats. They are an integral part of England’s cultural heritage”.
It states categorically:
“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority.”
That last quote is relevant to the Department for Transport and High Speed Two Ltd. How can that be when the Government propose to destroy comparably large swathes of ancient woodland?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the words she quotes are all very fine but that it is not words but deeds that count? So far, we have not seen any of those words translated into deeds or practice.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is even more worrying is that, against the background of the National Audit Office report, the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, and the project budget going up by £10 billion, none of the promises or deeds that the Government are talking about at this stage will be kept if and when the project proceeds to construction. I am doubly worried, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
In Chesham and Amersham, we have the highest number of ancient woods within 500 metres of the line, 18 in total, and they will be severely damaged by the construction and ongoing operation of HS2; ironically, I am informed by the Woodland Trust that the Chancellor’s constituency of Tatton has the second highest number—10 ancient woods will be devastated. Of those 18 ancient woods in my constituency, seven are directly in the path of the proposed line and will be totally devastated by its construction.
I will give three examples. I do not know whether the Minister has walked in Sibley’s coppice, but it will suffer the loss of 2.1 hectares of what is only a 7.52 hectare ancient wood, which is more than 28%. Farthings wood will see almost 1 hectare of ancient woodland lost to the construction of a cutting. The wood is only 2.56 hectares, so the loss represents more than 40% of the wood.
One wood about which I am particularly concerned, because I was walking in it on Friday morning, is Mantle’s wood. It will lose 6.3 hectares of ancient woodland, which represents a loss of more than 25% of a 20.45 hectare wood that is cherished by the local community. When I walked the public pathway to the entrance of the wood on Friday, I could hear some background noise—in fact, there was a lark singing overhead—and the distant sound of a plane from Heathrow, but by the time I had walked 5 yards inside Mantle’s wood, I was transported into a greenwood and back in time. It is one of the most beautiful woods that can be imagined, with dips and cherry trees that have been there for years. There are birds, insects and flowers, and I just missed the best season, because the wood had bluebells before I arrived, but they were just over. I encourage people to visit Mantle’s wood to see what this project will destroy.
There is no point saying, “Okay, we are just going to lose 6.3 hectares of a 20.45 hectare wood.” The path I walked along will become the main transport route to the portal that will emerge in the middle of Mantle’s wood. Nobody can tell me that all those men and vehicles, all that spoil shifting and everything that will go on during the construction of the major exit of a tunnel will not damage the rest of that wood irreparably. People would weep if they could see what their children, their children’s children and future generations will lose if the project goes ahead.
The loss of ancient woodland can never be compensated; it does not matter what the Minister says or how many people write it. Matt Jackson is the head of conservation and strategy at the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and I am grateful to him and his colleague for taking me into the middle of Mantle’s wood and letting me see it not through a layman’s eyes, as I have just described it, but through those of a conservationist and expert. Anyone who saw what was there would understand implicitly that such woodland can never be replaced.
Over the millennia, ancient woodland has evolved its own ecosystem, including soils and fungi. When those are disturbed, they are lost. One cannot just pick up the wood and the soil, move them somewhere else, build something, and then move them back and replant. That ecosystem has taken hundreds of years to develop, and we are going to destroy it just like that.
The plans drawn up by the Department for Transport, which involve planting 4 million native trees to create new habitats for wildlife and flora and to offset some of the carbon impact of construction, are not good enough. They may be welcomed, but they will never compensate for the loss of ancient woodland, which is, by nature, irreplaceable. It is important that that is understood fully by a much wider audience.
The Woodland Trust has considered the biodiversity offsetting ratio produced by the Department for Transport, which is approximately 2:1, and suggests an absolute minimum compensation ratio of 30:1. I refer the Minister to the trust’s HS2 fact sheet “Compensation and Mitigation for Biodiversity Loss”. He needs to re-evaluate and to revisit that issue.
On the Minister’s visit—by the way, he did not write to me to say that he was visiting—
It was a private visit.
Far be it from me to criticise my right hon. Friend. On his private visits, has he been to one of the newer woodlands to see for himself the difference between newly planted woodland and a wood of the type my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) describes that has existed for 300 or 400 years?
I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to that point. Walking in any wood is a great pleasure, but if you go down to the woods today, Minister, you are in for a big surprise, because there are many people throughout this country who feel strongly about our habitat, our woods and our natural heritage.
The draft environmental statement goes on to say that the proposed woodland planting will have a beneficial effect that will be significant at the district and borough level. However, the view of our environmental organisations is that it is unacceptable to claim that the effect will be beneficial when the woodland planting will be only partial compensation for the loss of ancient woodland.
The draft environmental statement also says that one aspect of the design of the proposed scheme is to avoid or reduce impacts on features of ecological value. It refers to constructing a green tunnel next to South Heath in my constituency to reinstate habitat continuity in the area. However, ancient woodland at Sibley’s coppice would be destroyed to create that cut-and-cover green tunnel, and the avoidance of ecological impact is almost impossible. Strip planting schemes are proposed that purport to replace the loss of our ancient woodland, but the habitats of certain animals and organisms cannot be joined up across a road. Some of the claims that are made in the environmental statement need close evaluation because I do not believe that they do what they say on the tin.
Natural England states that ancient woodland is a system that cannot be moved. The baldness of that statement makes me believe that no matter what the Minister says about grand plans for replacing our ancient woodland, once it is destroyed, it is destroyed. We need to accept that, and to admit that that is what the scheme will do.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con):
Is an ancient wood an ancient wood, or are there different types of ancient wood? In other words, would one find the same things in Chesham and Amersham as in Lichfield, for instance?
I honestly cannot answer my hon. Friend with accuracy; I can answer only from my own experience. In Mantle’s wood, for example, we have the most magnificent cherry trees, which are native to the Chilterns. One can see that they have been there for years by the huge size of their trunks, their shininess and the rings on their bark. They are absolutely magnificent. It is a mixed wood; there are even oaks and beeches growing there. In the Chilterns and our area of outstanding natural beauty, we were famous for making beechwood furniture. I imagine that there will be some commonality across the country, but each wood is bound to have a unique and different nature, wherever it is, which makes it irreplaceable.
Perhaps I can help. There will be variations between different types of wood depending on the quality of the soil, whether there is water and the environmental weather patterns in different parts of the country, but ancient woods all have one thing in common: because they have existed for hundreds of years, their ecosystems have evolved in such a way that any replacement with new plantations cannot replicate them. That is the point that my right hon. Friend and I are making.
That is helpful. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend and I share a passion for our ancient woods. I hope that the fact that he has secured the debate and given others an opportunity to speak up will make the Minister and the Department think twice about pursuing the project and the route.
I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, but before I draw my remarks to a conclusion, I must say that, sadly, many people have found the draft environmental statement, which is currently subject to consultation, to be superficial, inconsistent and incomplete. Crucial ecology surveys and assessments are yet to be undertaken. It is almost impossible for communities to respond effectively, and the presentation suggests that environmental impact is a secondary consideration, but that is simply not good enough for such an expensive project.
The non-technical summary of the statement considers environmental impact only superficially and completely misunderstands the complexity and national significance of damage to habitats. For example, it states:
“At present there are no route-wide significant effects on habitats”,
which is clearly not the case given that 67 ancient woods will suffer direct loss or damage, and given the national importance ascribed to ancient woodland by the national planning policy framework.
I have some questions for the Minister, although I could speak for much longer. Sadly, we have not had the opportunity for detailed debates on HS2 in the House. On Second Reading of the preparation Bill, so many people wanted to speak that even I, despite being called first after the Front Benchers, had only six minutes. There has been little or no opportunity to consider into the detail of the project, which is why I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate.
If the project goes ahead, the Department for Transport must come up with a much better story to support it and a much better way to deal with the problems arising from it. The route through the Chilterns and my hon. Friend’s constituency is a straight line. It is like a piece of steel going through the heart of our community and through an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is designated as such because we are supposed to protect it for future generations. We are breaking that protection and that vow by putting the project through the middle of the AONB.
Reportedly, the route has to be a straight line through the middle of the AONB and up to Birmingham because everything is about speed; a straight line is necessary to run those really fast trains. The story has changed a little, however; it is now about capacity on the west coast main line. If that is the case, the Department for Transport must look seriously at variations to the route to minimise not only the environmental damage, at least, but some of the horrors of blight that will be caused to people’s lives, homes, businesses and communities along the line. The existing proposal had better not be the last word on the route from the Department. We will have the hybrid Bill process, if HS2 goes ahead, but if that happens, I make a plea for moving some of the line so that we can protect one of the most fragile parts of the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend share my curiosity about what the Opposition spokesperson will say about the line’s route? The Opposition now seem to have adopted the route for which we were campaigning when we were in opposition before 2010.
Senior distinguished members of the Labour party, such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), have come out in public against the route. Today, the former Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, features on the front page of the Financial Times, and “‘Expensive mistake’ warning derails consensus on HS2” is a pretty heavy headline. The Labour party is in a great deal of difficulty. This morning, Lord Adonis tweeted with bravado that it will not make the same mistakes as were made on the Channel tunnel and cancel HS2. The original idea was indeed Lord Adonis’s way of dealing with what was looking like a pretty comprehensive transport policy from the Conservative party in the run-up to the election. The gaff has been blown by Lord Mandelson—Lord Adonis came up with an idea that was more political than practical. Labour was probably a little surprised when we adopted it hook, line and sinker, and certainly when we went for the route through the AONB.
I want the Minister to re-examine the reasons for HS2. If the case for HS2 is not only speed, but capacity, and if the project goes ahead, even though the dreadful business case is getting worse, it must be possible to vary the route of the line to minimise the damage. I want him to look at greater tunnelling. I was grateful when the Government’s second Transport Secretary—I think the Minister works for the third Transport Secretary in as many years—listened to me and took seriously my points about the geology of my area, with its chalk streams and the aquifer, and about the environment and woodlands that would be affected. She extended the tunnel, although unfortunately she extended it right into the middle of a piece of ancient woodland.
I want the Minister to undertake to look seriously at greater tunnelling. A Brett tunnel plan, with a gap at Durham farm for engineering and environmental reasons, is being proposed on behalf of Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside and the Chiltern Ridges HS2 Action Group. It would protect all the ancient woodland in the Chilterns for future generations to enjoy. I want him to assure me today that he will examine the proposal seriously and not rule it out on grounds of cost, because the cost to our environment will be even greater. I want the Government to ensure that that is covered by the final environmental statement, when that is deposited along with the hybrid Bill. That is in the Minister’s gift, because the current consultation on the draft environmental statement is being carried out by HS2 Ltd, so it is not a statutory consultation, but a gratuitous one—perhaps that is why the document is so poor. The real environmental statement must be produced by the Department for Transport and it must be deposited with the hybrid Bill. I understand that it will run to at least 50,000 pages, but I want an undertaking from the Minister today that it will run to 50,001 and include the full tunnelling option that would protect the AONB.
If HS2 goes ahead, and goes ahead on a straight line, without the route being varied and without greater tunnelling, I ask the Minister to look at the mitigation ratios that I was discussing earlier, because 2:1 is not enough; 30:1 is more like it. What is more, I want the finance for that to be protected—I am not stupid. The project has already gone up in cost by £10 billion and has one of the largest contingency funds in living memory. The costing has been got wrong at almost every turn, and at every stage, by clever consultants, by the Department and by HS2 Ltd. Mistakes have been made in calculating the spoil coming out of tunnels and in the business case. Dare I say it, mistakes might even have been made in calculating the traffic on the west coast main line. When money is squeezed, the first thing to go is promises to protect the environment. That is all too easy, and I have seen that process happen along the London underground line in my constituency. Trees and foliage were cleared to keep the line safe; on one side they were replaced by soil full of local flora and fauna, but the money ran out, so a spray thing was used for the other side instead. Anyone walking along the line can see the meadows and the wildlife coming back on one side along that Chiltern railway line, which is so beautiful, while on the other side, where the cheaper material has been used, it is like a desert. I have written to London Underground asking it to ensure that it continues the planting. I therefore have practical experience of the fact that when the Government and organisations run out of money, the first thing to go is the promises that they made to protect and enhance the environment.
There is another option, however. You know it, Mrs Osborne, I know it, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield knows it, everyone else involved in the project knows it and now Lord Mandelson and the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West know it: cancel HS2 and look at other options. If we are going to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money—we are not in Victorian times, so it is our money, not private money, that will build the railway line—a better way to achieve the Government’s laudable aims is to look at other projects that will deliver better value for money for the taxpayer and protect our environment. I hope that the Minister will take my points seriously and reflect on them at the Department for Transport, and that he will make alterations or look to other schemes that would benefit the country far more.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I apologise for my terrible cold, which is affecting my delivery somewhat.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this important debate and for posing some important questions on behalf of his constituents and others who are concerned about our natural environment. The debate will be followed closely in communities along the proposed route and, speaking as a Greenwood myself, I have a natural sympathy for a number of the points he made. The debate is timely, because there are only eight days left before consultation on the phase 1 draft environmental statement closes. We have heard from right hon. and hon. Members about the impact on ancient woodlands. Before addressing such valid concerns, however, I will say a few words about the wider environmental significance of the new north-south line.
A new line can help the UK to meet its 2050 carbon reduction targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 by attracting new passengers to the railways and by providing the additional capacity that freight and passenger services need. The rail freight sector has enjoyed 10 years of growth, and any Government that is serious about tackling carbon emissions would want to see that success continue. Without additional capacity, however, the risk is that freight operators will have to be turned away in future. Greengauge 21 looked at the environmental impact of the HS2 project last year, in a report commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That report makes it clear that the environmental benefits of the new line have a close relationship with other policy areas.
At the moment, rail journeys consume much less carbon than equivalent car journeys. That gap was expected to close as more electric cars entered the market. I remind Government Members that the full coalition agreement included a commitment to
“a national recharging network for electric and plug in vehicles”.
In reality, those plans have been drastically cut back. It may make uncomfortable listening for some Government Members, but the Government’s failure to deliver a national recharging network strengthens the environmental case for a new rail line.
The report also highlights the need for a full network as the carbon reduction benefits are multiplied fourfold when the second phase to Manchester and Leeds is factored in. The Government should and could have provided that certainty by introducing a single hybrid Bill to cover the entire route, allowing construction to start at both ends of the line. We need a clear timetable for decarbonisation of the electricity market, and that was one of the report’s recommendations. Labour has made a commitment to decarbonise the sector by 2030 before phase 2of the new line is completed.
Network Rail has embarked on a major programme of electrification on our existing rail network, as well as on the new high-speed line. We need an ambitious timetable for decarbonisation to reduce the impact of that additional demand. There are steps that the Government could take now to maximise the environmental benefits of the new north-south rail line, However, those wider gains will not cancel out the loss of individual habitats. Loss in some areas may be unavoidable, but damage should take place only when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. The test is whether every reasonable step has been taken to mitigate environmental damage.
Hon. Members and communities along the line have raised serious concerns about the way in which HS2 Ltd has handled consultation up to this point. It is no secret that many of the early community forum meetings in particular were badly organised, with underprepared staff giving incorrect or conflicting information to the public. As the Chilterns Conservation Board said at the time, the meetings were characterised by
“a lack of clarity on what the Community Forums will actually cover. Many of the HS2 Ltd staff…were…quite new in post and could not confirm how the meetings should work or even if they would be attending future ones.”
The Minister must ensure that when the consultation on the final environmental statement begins—I would welcome a date for that—the process is transparent and accessible, and that enough time is provided for proper responses fully involving the affected communities. More than a year on, there are still serious questions about the route, including whether the tunnel under the Chilterns will be extended, with only eight days left for the draft environmental statement consultation.
The situation was not helped when misleading statements were made early last year. In a letter to the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), suggested that woodland could be transplanted to an adjacent site, a process known as translocation. We must be clear that ancient woodland cannot be moved, but some animal species and soil can be moved or translocated, although the consequences of moving soil from ancient woodland are, sadly, poorly understood. Any trees that are moved will be coppiced, radically altering their appearance and risking the death of individual trees during the moving process. Although some constituent parts of the woodland may be salvaged, the original biodiversity cannot be recreated and is lost for ever. Natural England has said that translocation might, if carried out as a last resort when loss of the original habitat is completely unavoidable, form part of a package of compensation measures. In other words, translocation may have a part to play, but we must be honest about its limitations.
The onus should be on route design and mitigation measures to avoid disrupting ancient woodland in the first place. Some measures have been introduced to reduce the line’s impact, such as additional tunnelling, but we would like clearer information about the cost, especially now that the overall cost of the project has increased, largely because of new tunnels in west London, Birmingham and the east midlands.
Will the hon. Lady clarify whether the official Opposition now support the route, more or less, that we proposed when in Opposition, which would follow an existing transport corridor, thus minimising environmental damage, and not the Adonis route that we have adopted?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right to point out that we considered alternative routes and argued that they should be considered by the new Government. We want the project to proceed, but there are significant concerns about the Government’s timetable, particularly the hybrid Bill. The Government are in a position to make decisions and we want the project to proceed, but that does not mean that we should not look carefully at the option for mitigation and compensation to protect the natural habitat.
Will the Minister tell us whether he is satisfied with the way in which alterations to the proposed route have been made so far, whether he expects further changes, including additional tunnelling, to avoid ancient woodland, and whether he has given any thought to how ancient woodland in particular will be approached during the hybrid Bill’s petitioning process? When the Bill goes into Committee, the Government will be able to set limits of deviation restricting the extent to which alterations may be made during that process. We ask for careful thought to be given to how ancient woodland might be affected by those limits. The commitment to planting new trees is welcome, provided they form a sensitive and effective sound barrier, but they cannot replace ancient woodland which is, by definition, irreplaceable.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lichfield agrees that a north-south rail line is right in principle. As the House debated last week, there is an impending capacity crunch for our railways, especially on the west coast main line which will be full by 2024.
The hon. Lady says that the west coast main line will be full by a certain date. Can she give me her source of information and the evidence base on which her statement is based?
My information is based on the evidence provided by Network Rail and others showing the continuing huge growth not just on the west coast main line, but on all rail lines. There is great demand from passengers and freight and we must be able to meet that from an environmental perspective because of the importance of rail for our future economic growth and regeneration.
A new north-south rail line is necessary to keep pace with rising passenger and freight demand. This project can bring additional private investment along the route, generating jobs and growth while improving connections between our cities, particularly in the midlands and the north. The hon. Member for Lichfield was absolutely right to call for this debate on ancient woodland, which is a particular concern for his constituents. This discussion comes at a crucial point as the designs for phase 1 are finalised. I hope that the Minister will explain exactly how he intends to act on the back of the points raised today, and provide full answers to the questions that other hon. Members and I have posed.
There is no doubt that there is a difficult balance to be struck. High-speed rail can help to deliver carbon reduction, which is why the Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace support it in principle. Inaction is not an option, as road schemes and degraded air quality also threaten woodland. The line can bring real environmental benefits, but only if other policy decisions are taken, including in particular a commitment to decarbonise electricity. That wider context is crucial, especially as Parliament is being asked to confer extra spending and planning powers in aid of the scheme.
As hon. Members have pointed out, there is an apparent contradiction between the Government’s national planning framework, which contains a provision against development on ancient woodland sites, and the proposed route, which goes through several such areas. This is exactly the sort of issue that could be addressed in the long-awaited national transport strategy, but three years in, the Government still do not have one. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he expects the document to be published; it would be of great assistance to MPs and the public as the debate continues.
To conclude, we have lost half our ancient woodland since the 1930s, mainly as a result of agricultural development. The hard truth is that although the new north-south rail line will bring a great number of benefits, it is likely to result in further loss. That is a matter of regret, and both the Government and HS2 Ltd must present an absolutely watertight case when they propose the disruption or destruction of ancient woodland sites. I promise hon. Members and the wider public that Labour will return to the issue during the Bill’s Committee stage.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns):
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for securing the debate. As everybody who has taken part in the debate or been in the Chamber will acknowledge, the issues that have been raised are extremely important. I assure my hon. Friend that, during the course of my comments, he will be getting answers to the six questions that he asked.
One has to accept, as the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) did during her speech, that a balance has to be struck between the economic needs of the country and the potential impact on a countryside that has been enjoyed by generations of people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) described, in very moving terms, the importance to many communities throughout the country of not only ancient woodlands, but other environmental features of their local communities.
Although I believe HS2 to be in the national interest, we know that it is sadly not possible to build a railway without any effect on the environment. When designing the route, we must carefully weigh important considerations such as wildlife habitats against other concerns, such as protecting as many people’s homes as possible. We must ensure that any environmental effects are reduced as far as possible and also look for opportunities to benefit the environment along the way.
I assure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are determined to make the scheme environmentally responsible, and I believe that we have gone to great lengths to listen to those who are concerned about the environmental effects of the project. In February 2011, we consulted on the appraisal of sustainability. As hon. Members said, we are now consulting on a more detailed draft environmental statement. That is an unprecedented level of consultation to ensure that we do the right thing by the environment.
A great deal has also been done on designing the route of HS2 to reduce its environmental impact. HS2 Ltd has worked closely with Natural England and the Environment Agency on choosing options and preparing designs that have no impact on sites of international importance for nature. In addition, bilateral meetings have been held with county wildlife trusts to discuss possible impacts on wildlife sites and mitigation measures that could be employed to reduce impacts whenever practicable.
As I said, in September last year, I made a private visit—driving from the M25 up to Warwickshire—to see exactly what the impact of the line of route would be on not only the environment, including woodlands and water, but some of the communities, villages and houses near the route. It was extremely important that I could visualise that for myself, rather than seeing this only as a concept on a piece of paper, from photographs, or from what people have told me.
What struck me was that all too often, when the Government or some other organisation produces a recommendation, that is their view of what should happen. More often than not, when people come up with improvements, fine tuning, or even criticism to it, those who have drawn up the proposal feel threatened, dig their heels in, and take an attitude that what they want is right and what anyone else wants to change, modify or reject is wrong. Hard and fast positions are taken, so no one is prepared to budge. Going along that line of route, I was impressed by proposals that had come in to fine tune or change the line of route slightly, or associated proposals, and the way in which HS2 Ltd has been prepared to work with groups and local communities to make improvements. We have not had the unfortunate situation that happens all too often whereby because the proposal was the Government’s and HS2 Ltd’s, it was 100% right, and anything that challenged it was a criticism of them, and they were not prepared to think again.
It is fair to say that a number of changes—and, to my mind, improvements—have been made to alleviate problems for not only the environment, but individuals, their communities and their properties. However, I also accept that one will never be 100% able to meet the wishes and requests of people who want changes, because it is just not possible to do so, given the project’s sheer scale. One has to reach a judgment on what is in the national interest and what must go forward, because it is in the national interest, while at the same time trying to minimise any damage that might occur to the environment and to people’s homes and businesses. I will deal with part of that later in my speech.
As I said, HS2 Ltd has worked closely with Natural England and the Environment Agency on choosing options and preparing designs that would have no impact on sites of international importance for nature, which is important. There have been bilateral meetings with county wildlife trusts to discuss the possible impacts on wildlife sites. The Government have already committed to planting 4 million new trees as part of the HS2 project, and hon. Members referred to that important point in their comments. I certainly take the point that that has to be done sensitively and properly, but it represents an important improvement to the environment, especially where the line of route will be.
I am not being ungrateful for what the Minister is saying, but I would like to point out that the ratio of replanting—the 2:1 that I referred to, although the experts say that 30:1 is needed—should be considered. It sounds like an awful lot of trees, but when we start to look at the density per hectare, it is not a large number of trees.
On community involvement and bilateral meetings, the Minister must admit that, particularly in my area, they have not always been the most successful or effective exchanges of information as far as larger groups are concerned, even in relation to their number and frequency.
I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point about the number of trees, but I am not 100% convinced that 4 million new trees along the line of route is not the right number. Of course, that is only part of the remedial action that the Government and HS2 Ltd will take to protect the environment, which I shall address in greater detail later.
My right hon. Friend also raises an important point about community forums and the interactive dialogue between communities and HS2 Ltd. I will be frank with her: we get a variety of reports of those meetings. Some reports have been extremely positive, saying that people have found the meetings extremely helpful. As she will know from her correspondence with me on behalf of her constituents, they have been concerned about some of the meetings that have taken place in her constituency, and I accept that point. I have noted the criticisms that she has drawn to my attention. We have certainly spoken to HS2 Ltd and we or it will address the concerns of several of her constituents, because we believe that it is important that there is a proper dialogue between communities and HS2 Ltd, and that people work together. Even if people do not necessarily agree with the project, that is the important thing. Because I and the rest of the Government believe that the project is in the national interest and should go ahead, we must work with local communities, and local and national organisations, to ensure that we get the best project that causes the least damage to the environment.
In addition to the new trees that will be planted, we are examining opportunities to enhance existing habitats or create new woodland areas and wildlife habitats, but we must be mindful that it is not possible—unfortunately, and as much as I would love to have it in my gift—to avoid completely all sensitive areas. We have already made every effort to avoid sites that are of importance for their international ecological value and areas of national designation, such as the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. In this instance, of the 13 miles of route through the area, less than 2 miles will be at or above the surface. Compared with the phase 1 route that was originally subject to consultation in 2011, there will be a more than 50% increase overall in tunnel or green tunnel, and the initial preferred scheme for phase 2 has no impact on national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty.
When it comes to minimising impact on ancient woodlands, the Department and HS2 Ltd take their obligation to conserve them extremely seriously. Through careful design of the route and strict controls during construction, we are seeking to reduce, as far as practicable, any impacts. For example, the provision of a tunnel at Long Itchington avoids the ancient wood there, and a retained cutting minimises land take at South Cubbington wood.
Ancient woodlands, as everyone who has taken part in or has listened to the debate accepts, are a very important part of our natural heritage. However, as I have said, it is, sadly, not possible to build a railway without any effects on important environmental sites. Other factors, such as the location of people’s homes, have to be taken into account as well. The Government have to strike a balance between a range of important considerations. That debate has taken place to good effect in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, where the original route has been moved away from those places where the majority of people live. Designs have also been developed to avoid important employment areas and to ensure that local conditions for growth are not missed.
I hope from the way my hon. Friend is nodding in the affirmative that he is appreciative and accepts that that was the right thing to do.
To provide an effective outcome for the natural environment, I strongly believe that we have listened and engaged, and we will continue to engage with those non-governmental organisations with an interest in the natural environment. The Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and other groups already form part of the debate through my regular environmental round-table meetings. They are already proving effective, and as a result we are implementing plans for a design panel to inform the aesthetics of the detailed design.
I assure my hon. Friend that we will be providing suitable compensation for any ancient woodland that is lost, following the best practice recommended by our ecologists, which is developed in conjunction with Natural England. We will also be examining opportunities to enhance existing woodland and to create new woodland areas and wildlife habitats. With more than 22,000 ancient woodlands in England and Wales, it is impossible to avoid them all. That being the case, we believe that it is appropriate to provide some form of compensation when avoidance is not possible.
Current best practice, which builds on methods employed for other major infrastructure projects, such as High Speed 1 and the M2 widening scheme, includes the relocation of the ancient woodland soil with its seeds to allow it to regenerate over time, together with the planting of native trees of local provenance. Ten years’ monitoring undertaken by environmental specialists has shown that new areas of habitat were successfully created along the HS1 route, including for protected species such as the dormouse.
It should be noted also that HS2 has committed to seeking no net loss of habitats. When ancient woodlands are affected, it will result in a larger area of woodland being created than the area lost.
I appreciate what the Minister is saying and I know that he is on a very sticky wicket in dealing with this. In the draft environmental statement, HS2 claims that the translocation of woods will result in habitat of a similar value, but the Construction Industry Research and Information Association specifically states that translocation of ancient woodland is only
“an appropriate activity to salvage and create a new habitat of some value, albeit a lower one than lost”.
That directly contradicts the claim in the draft environmental statement. Will the Minister now admit that it does not matter what is said here as the position is in line with what Natural England says? We cannot replace ancient woodland at all, and whatever we do will always result in a habitat of lesser value.
May I say to my right hon. Friend, in shorthand script, that the answer to both points is no? First, I am not on a sticky wicket. I am outlining to hon. Members what the Government are doing to try to minimise the damage. It is certainly not a sticky wicket; it is actually a range of proposals and initiatives of which I believe that the Government can be proud because of the efforts that we are putting into ensuring that we do everything to avoid causing damage when that is possible and, when it is not, taking the maximum opportunity to minimise the damage that will be caused by building the railway.
Secondly, I do not accept the point about conflict with what HS2 is proposing. Yes, by definition, we cannot uproot an ancient woodland and transplant it lock, stock and barrel to another site, so in that respect my right hon. Friend is correct, but what we can do is take the measures I have described to transplant an area when woodland is being lost because of building work, which will go a considerable way towards helping to protect and improve the environment. That will not, of course, be the same as if one did nothing at all and left the existing ancient woodland, but it is a very good second-best option, and it is certainly better than doing nothing at all and letting that woodland be lost for ever.
I want to return to the Minister’s statement about no net loss. I query whether that is consistent with the Government’s national policy as set out in the natural environment White Paper and the national planning policy framework. Should they not actually adhere to the current policy of net gain?
Yes, certainly. What I said was absolutely right: there will be no net loss. We will work according to that principle. In some respects, we will have to wait and see whether there is an increase, particularly with the second