On 11 July, we appeared before the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee on Phase 2a for the second time. It started badly when we were told less than 24 hours before our arrival that the Committee had cut our appearance time from an hour to just 15 minutes. A frantic afternoon of rejigging our evidence ensued.
A good start to proceedings
I set off for London at the crack of dawn with a slightly heavy heart as all I could think about was how I would get over our six main concerns with such a restricted timeframe. However, the reality was quite different. Before we even got in the room, HS2 Ltd had agreed to resolve the first matter on our list by publishing a step-by-step guide to how breaches of assurance - the promises HS2 makes to affected parties - will be dealt with. This was really important as we had assurances breached on Phase 1 and discovered that the process for resolving this was non-existent. This agreement will be helpful for all petitioners with assurances, not just us.
Hope for the future of woods and trees on the route
The Committee was keen to rattle through our list and disappointingly said it would not reconsider the single tunnel proposal that would have saved 6ha of ancient woodland at Whitmore Wood. All is not lost yet though, as we can bring this matter up again when the bill moves on to the House of Lords.
On a more positive note, the Committee really grasped why we’re asking for all the trees planted by HS2 to be UK sourced and grown. We already do this for the millions of trees we procure each year and for the sake of reducing the potential import of tree diseases, we think HS2 should do it too. Let’s hope the Committee agrees with us.
Moving ancient woodland soils
Another biosecurity issue that has recently cropped up is the potential restriction on HS2 being able to translocate soils from the areas of ancient woodland it is removing for the scheme. HS2 has offered this as a form of enhanced compensation, but only recently realised that moving soil containing plant material and seeds from ash trees has been restricted in the UK since 2012 to prevent the spread of ash dieback. I asked the Committee to make sure any discussions that HS2 has with the Forestry Commission about this matter are made public, and emphasised that we would like to know what the contingency plan is if the translocations can’t take place. We will let you know what happens.
Unfortunately, Phase 2a will destroy 10.2ha of ancient woodland and the Committee has not been minded to ask HS2 to refine the scheme to reduce this. However, it was interested in getting HS2 to look at those parts of the scheme classed as temporary works, such as traffic diversions and construction compounds. These works are going to cause the removal of at least 9 veteran trees and HS2 has now been directed to make a statement on this which is promising.
Compensation for ancient woodland destruction
Finally, we came to the point I thought the Committee would really grill me on: our request for compensation planting for ancient woodland lost, at a ratio of 30ha for every 1ha lost. That would mean more than 300ha of new planting in place of the ancient woodland wiped out. This is a bold ask, but if projects are going to destroy irreplaceable habitat then the compensation must be at such a level that saving the woodland is an attractive prospect. This figure has also been promoted by Natural England. To my surprise, the Committee was willing to listen to what I had to say on the matter and has asked HS2 to publish clear figures on exactly what it is providing at the moment - something we’ve been asking for for years. One of the Committee members also made the sensible suggestion that HS2 could use land it retains at the end of the scheme to provide additional areas of planting.
It’s highly unlikely we will get everything we want, but I am hopeful that the amount of compensation will increase - although this won’t ever replace the ancient woodland lost. Rest assured we will continue to campaign vigorously, both on HS2 and other projects, for no loss of ancient woodland. But if a Government scheme can be seen to provide levels of compensation far higher than ever before, this sets a precedent for other schemes. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction and shows our message is being heard at the highest levels.