HS2 preparatory works 'threaten destruction of irreplaceable wildlife habitat'

By agency reporter
September 20, 2019

Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham has threatened legal action against the Government over plans to destroy ancient woodlands from October onwards in preparation for the HS2 railway. He has also demanded urgent clarification following an announcement by the Transport Secretary that he has ordered HS2 Ltd to stop removals of ancient woodlands, unless they are necessary to, “avoid major cost and schedule impacts”.

Law firm Leigh Day acting on behalf of Mr Packham has sent the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, a Pre-Action Protocol letter requesting the cessation of the HS2 enabling works pending the outcome of the Government review announced on 21 August 2019. 

In answers to Parliamentary Questions submitted by Sir David Lidington MP on 5 September 2019, the Transport Secretary confirmed that enabling works would continue. Lidington, the MP for Aylesbury, pointed out that this means public money will be used to fell ancient woodlands even though it is open to the review panel to recommend that the project be cancelled completely or in part. 

The enabling works threaten at least 13 ancient woodlands along the Phase 1 HS2 route. These include Cubbington Woods in Warwickshire which is home to an iconic pear tree thought to be at least 250 years old and voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2015. 

Other sites scheduled to be damaged or destroyed before the review on the future of the HS2 project is complete include woodlands in Birmingham, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, some of which are home to a rich variety of species protected by European and national law such as bats and provide suitable habitat for dormice and otters.

The pre-action protocol letter to the Transport Secretary was written before his announcement on 16 September that he has ordered HS2 Ltd to stop removals of ancient woodlands for HS2 unless they are necessary to “avoid major cost and schedule impacts”. Mr Packham has sought urgent clarification of which woodlands are expected nonetheless to be destroyed, and the detail of the criteria by which HS2 will decide. At this stage it is unclear whether any of the 13 ancient woodlands identified in Packham’s pre-action letter will in fact be given a temporary reprieve as a result of the Transport Secretary’s announcement. 

Chris Packham said: “For a multitude of reasons I am very pleased that the future of HS2 is under review. However, as the minister has failed to give unequivocal assurances that ongoing enabling works will not damage, destroy or disturb important and irrecoverable wildlife sites I am launching this legal action. To think that a single hectare of ancient woodland, indeed a single old oak might be unnecessarily felled and lost forever on account of a scheme which may not even progress is untenable. This government should be minded to act to mitigate any environmental damage against its declaration of a climate and environmental emergency. These woodlands and their creatures are national natural treasures - they are not expendable, they are invaluable.

Carol Day, solicitor in the environmental team at Leigh Day who is working on the challenge with solicitor Tom Short, said: “Our client is concerned that the Transport Secretary has not done enough to ensure there will be no loss of, or damage to, irreplaceable ancient woodlands during the period of the Review. We may be in a situation where there is no eventual 'gain' arising from the railway, so we are asking for proof that he properly considered this issue, alongside national planning policy protecting these important wildlife habitats, on all 13 sites.”

* Leigh Day https://www.leighday.co.uk/

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