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HS2 Ltd "guilty of institutional amnesia"

Woodland Trust ecologist Luci Ryan has today told transport professionals from across the public and private sector that a high turnover of staff at HS2 Ltd has led to the organisation suffering "institutional amnesia".

Speaking at the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on the delivery of Phase One and the next steps for Phase Two, she highlighted a number of instances where HS2 has breached assurances and failed in its governance due to a lack of knowledge and communication.

The HS2 rail project is the biggest single threat from development to ancient woodland right now (Photo: WTML)
The HS2 rail project is the biggest single threat from development to ancient woodland right now (Photo: WTML)

She also flagged how the Trust regularly has to explain HS2 Ltd policy to HS2 staff in our ongoing campaign to save ancient woodland from destruction.

Here's what she said:

"The Woodland Trust is the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity. We own and manage over 1200 sites and one of our aims is for no further loss of ancient woodland. The Trust is not opposed to the concept of high speed rail as in theory it is a green form of transport. However, the current route of HS2 destroys at least 56ha of irreplaceable ancient woodland and the scheme will not be able to achieve its stated aim of no net loss to biodiversity.

So what are the major issues we have encountered so far?

In my experience HS2 Ltd. assumes that whatever they say will happen does happen. On a project this large, that is a very naïve approach to adopt. However, almost as soon as the enabling works on Phase 1 commenced it became apparent that things were going wrong. As a petitioner on HS2 you are offered assurances –non-binding agreements - to help put your concerns to rest. In total HS2 has issued just under 3,000 of these on Phase 1. Sixteen of these are to the Woodland Trust.

In late 2017 HS2 Ltd. breached at least 3 of these in regards to works at Newyear’s Green Covert ancient woodland in Ruislip. The breaches occurred because the contractors working on site were not even aware of the assurances because HS2 Ltd. legal team had removed them from the work package as they made it too wordy. As if this was not bad enough, it then transpired that HS2 Ltd. has no protocol in place to deal with breaches of assurance.

The Trust had to resort to threatening legal action in order to get to the bottom of what had happened. As a result of our experience the Trust has gained a commitment from HS2 Ltd. via the Phase 2a select committee that a protocol for dealing with breaches of assurance will be created and published. We are still waiting for this to happen.

HS2 employs a lot of people and staff turnover at HS2 Ltd. is high, leading to losses of institutional memory. I frequently find myself in the strange position of having to explain HS2 policy to new members of their staff. Before the Trust appeared at the House of Lords on Phase 1, nearly every single member of staff we had dealt with left.

The Trust is a large stakeholder in the HS2 process and if we find it difficult to get answers to our queries then individual landowners are going to struggle even more. HS2 also likes to send multiple people to meetings when maybe only one or two will do. We have never got to the bottom of why this is, although we suspect it is because there is so many new people.

Most memorably HS2 sent 12 people to see us at our office and yet only 3 of them spoke. I know farmers I deal with have similar stories of trying to cram HS2 staff into their kitchens. It’s unnecessary and I would suggest a waste of money. HS2 Ltd. has spent £2.5million on train tickets in 2018 alone. This does not include contractor costs.

Lack of protocols for dealing with stakeholders and high staff turnover affects the contractors as well. It is not unusual for contractors to contact the Trust directly because they have lost their regular HS2 contact and don’t know who their new ones are. This is not an efficient way to run a project.

So what can HS2 do? The good news is that I get to have monthly meetings with HS2 Ltd. so I do now have some consistency with staff I can contact. Although recent staff losses could potentially cause issues. The breach of assurances at Newyear’s Green Covert have resulted in a promise of a protocol which when delivered should make things easier for all stakeholders.

In addition the Trust has secured service level agreements about the amount of notice we get relating to works affecting HS2. But again, I have found myself having to tell new members of HS2 staff about the existence of these agreements. This is not a professional way to conduct stakeholder engagement.

Despite this, the Trust generally has a good working relationship with HS2 Ltd. and we continue to meet on a monthly basis as well as attending the HS2 ministerial roundtable meetings.

However, I’m afraid to say that we remain entirely unconvinced that HS2 Ltd. is doing everything it can to avoid precious areas of irreplaceable habitat and as such we will continue to campaign hard for these changes to be made. Overall, too much of HS2 Ltd.’s activity remains alarmingly at odds with the Government’s wider ambitions for the environment.

So, in summary, a failure of governance, high staff turnover coupled with multiple contractors has resulted in institutional amnesia, which in turn has led to breaches of assurances. Unfortunately, nothing so far indicates to me that this will improve on Phases 2a and 2b." 

-Ends-

Notes to editors

For media queries only please contact Dee Smith in the Woodland Trust press office on 01476 581121 or email deesmith@woodlandtrust.org.uk. Public enquiries should be directed to 0330 333 3300 or enquiries@woodlandtrust.org.uk

The Woodland Trust is the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. It has over 500,000 supporters. It wants to see a UK rich in native woods and trees for people and wildlife.

The Trust has three key aims:  i) protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable, ii) restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life, iii) plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.

Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,000 sites in its care covering over 22,500 hectares. Access to its woods is free.