Thirteen weeks after the 50,000 pages of the HS2 Environmental Statement landed on my desk I can breathe a sigh of relief as I have now submitted the Woodland Trust’s response to the consultation.
The ES was published with sections missing so the original deadlines were extended twice, first by the House of Commons and then by the House of Lords, giving me an additional 5 weeks to plough through the information. One day after submitting, now is a good opportunity to jot down some thoughts on how the process has gone and what may happen next.
Unlike most consultees I have been in the lucky (?) position of being able to devote my full time to reviewing the content of the ES. Even with the two extensions to the timeframe and no break over Christmas I have been unable to read all 50,000 pages. For a member of the public affected by HS2 who has a job and a family to run, reviewing all the relevant information in the ES would have been impossible.
The layout of the document was confusing to say the least, with much information buried within multiple reports and annexes of addendums (for example, the Ecology Section of Volume 5 contains 52 separate reports). The 100′s of maps attached to the ES are poorly labelled and the Volume 2 Community Forum Area reports contain no map references, so page after page of maps had to be searched to find the areas referred to. All of this added to the difficulty of navigating the document, before a review could be undertaken. Nonetheless, I battled through and our submission is in!
So what happens now?
In accordance with the instructions on gov.uk all responses to the consultation needed to be submitted by 11.45pm on Thursday 27 February 2014. The responses are now being reviewed by an independent assessor appointed by Parliament and will be summarised into a report.
The Trust does not know how many responses have been received or how long the assessor will be given to review the responses, the assessors report will be sent to Parliament at least two weeks before the second reading of the Hybrid Bill (according to gov.uk this will be 28 April 2014 at the very earliest). If the Bill passes the second reading, the principle of HS2 can no longer be opposed and the petitioning period will start (again the length of this is not known, but it is typically 3 weeks).
A petition against the Hybrid Bill is not the same as a public petition. It is a document, in a particular format, outlining how you are affected by the Bill and why you think it shouldn’t be proceeded with or how you would like it altered. Anyone who can establish that they are directly and specially affected by HS2 can petition, and the Woodland Trust will be taking part in this.
Petitions will be considered by a Select Committee and the Committee will have the power to amend the Hybrid Bill in a number of ways, although they will not be able to cancel the project outright. There are no dates for any of these stages because they are all dependant on when the second reading of the Hybrid Bill occurs, but we do not expect the Select Committee to sit until September 2014, at the very earliest.
The bottom line is that the Trust believes that 27 ancient woodlands will be directly affected by Phase 1 of HS2 and a further 22 will be indirectly affected. We have also identified a further 23 woods that we believe are ancient even though they are not on the Ancient Woodland Inventory. We have submitted evidence on these woods to Natural England and we are awaiting their response.
Ancient woodland is not adequately protected in law and projects like HS2, which the Government should be using to prove their green credentials, unfortunately clearly demonstrate how easy it is to destroy irreplaceable habitat that is part of our national heritage. Even if you are not directly affected by HS2, you can still give a voice to precious ancient woodland by taking action - ancient woodland must be given the protection it deserves.