I feel compelled to break our self-imposed purdah on relaying the detail of discussions at the A21 Inquiry. I really didn’t think a Public Inquiry could surprise me, especially on the penultimate day, but going through all the late amendments and submissions, after all the witness evidence has been submitted and cross-examinations taken place, I have to admit I was indeed gobsmacked.
One such late submission was the financial commitment to the capital funding for the scheme in the latest Chancellor’s Spending Review (CSR) – which is somewhat premature given the Public Inquiry hadn’t even closed, but that’s another issue! Then the bombshell: The Highways Agency (HA) revealed that it cannot commit financially to any mitigation, compensation or monitoring measures after the initial capital-funded 5 year period mentioned in the scheme proposals.
Troublingly this would not have come to light if I had not been at the Inquiry. I picked up on a representative of the Highways Agency mentioning that the promised mitigation & monitoring measures would be included in general maintenance contracts, and with the permission of the Inspector (as this wasn’t a formal witness evidence/cross examination session) I asked if this particular maintenance budget would be ring-fenced against cuts, or indeed increased alongside inflation. The HA confirmed that the capital funding included the initial 5 year implementation, but the rest would have to come out of the general revenue budget. I pressed on the commitment to fund the mitigation and compensation “promised” by the HA, in the context of continuing cuts to the HA’s budget, and the HA representative confirmed that it would be subject to the availability and level of revenue funding agreed in future budgets. I pressed again on whether therefore he would guarantee the measures being delivered, and he said no and shrugged his shoulders…
This information was little short of revelatory. Natural England (NE) for instance withdrew their objection on the basis of commitments to longevity of management and monitoring made by the HA, and these commitments were also communicated to the RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust.
The facts of the case are now clear. The HA have guaranteed to dual the A21, and destroy 9 hectares of ancient woodland. The HA will not guarantee that they will carry out the mitigation and compensation measures “promised” to the objectors – these presumably are merely aspirations. These promises must be included in the capital costs of the project, or in a financially binding “conservation covenant”. The Woodland Trust will be recommending adoption of such conservation covenants in the proposed Biodiversity Offsetting consultation, to guarantee compensation and monitoring measures in future schemes. If the Inspector weighs the balance in favour of the A21 widening, and destroying ancient woodland, then compensation for that loss needs to be appropriate, and guaranteed…
Finally, I’d like to say a special thank you to the hundreds of Trust supporters in the Kent area who shared their concerns over the loss of the 9ha of ancient woodland. Again your comments were taken note of by the Highways Agency and even more were accepted as an official part of the Inquiry process taking the total to 857 objectors since the Inquiry began.
Richard Barnes – Senior Conservation Advisor & Expert Witness