The final environmental statement for phase one of High Speed 2 finally arrived on the 25th November 2013. We all knew it was going to be big, but no one was quite prepared for how difficult it was going to be to wade through all the information contained within it. However, at around 50,000 pages long I never thought I would be in the bizarre position of feeling like I don’t have enough information to fully determine the impacts of HS2 on ancient woodland.
The ES states that 19 ancient woodlands will be directly affected by Phase 1 of HS2. However, my review of the ES so far indicates that there are 26 woodlands that will be directly affected by HS2. A further 17 ancient woodlands will suffer from indirect effects, such as noise, dust and changes to lighting. And there are another 24 woods under threat that we believe could also be ancient, we are working to get these recognised as such by Natural England.
Ancient woodland is irreplaceable and a habitat of national importance. Volume three of the Environmental Statement recognises this. However, the detailed community reports whilst accepting ancient woodland is irreplaceable then classify their importance at the county/metropolitan value at best. This devaluation of the significance of ancient woodland habitat is potentially misleading to people responding to the Environmental Statement.
The construction boundary has significantly increased from the draft Environmental Statement. In many places this appears to be due to the inclusion of utilities works that were not covered in the draft ES.Maps of the proposed route are scattered through the ES and this makes it very difficult to understand the proposed works and how they relate to one another. In my review so far I have found maps to be poorly labelled, and there are few map references within the reports so reviewing the mapping is proving to be very time consuming. The ecology maps (Vol. 5) and environmental baseline maps (Vol 2) are particularly misleading because the cross hatching used to denote ancient woodland is obliterated by the green used to designate local wildlife sites. All of these little issues are hugely increasing the amount of time it is taking to review the environmental statement. We have requested electronic maps from HS2 Ltd. to overlay on our mapping system but so far these have not been provided.
HS2 Ltd. has divided the proposed route up into 26 Community Forum Area (CFA) reports and each contains details of the likely significant effects of the construction and operation of the proposed scheme. Each CFA report – around 350 pages – follows roughly the same format, but the level of detail varies between each one, making it very difficult to obtain a clear and consistent picture of the effects along the line. As a result of this it has not been possible to determine how HS2 has come up with the figure of 32ha of ancient woodland to be lost. Discrepancies between figures of woodland loss within some CFA reports are further complicating this issue.
Worryingly ground works that will be required for the construction of some parts of the line do not appear to have been included in the Environmental Statement. For example, the draft ES clearly stated that 15 boreholes were needed to be drilled in Long Itchington Wood (an ancient woodland and a SSSI that the ES recognises as being of national importance). However, this had disappeared from the final environmental statement, which states that the wood will not be physically affected. Discussions with HS2 Ltd. have indicated that these bore holes will still be needed and that ground works will be subject to a separate report. This begs the question what other ground works are required along the length of the line that we do not know about, but that may lead to significant impacts on the environment.
Loss of ancient woodland also represents loss of species that rely on this habitat for their homes and source of food. 13 of the 17 species of bat breeding in the UK have been recorded along the proposed route of Phase1. This includes the incredibly rare Bechstein’s bat that has been found around Sheephouse Wood. The proposal by HS2 Ltd to put a box shaped enclosure around the track at this point to mitigate the impact on foraging bats is unique and to our knowledge untested. Barn owls are also particularly vulnerable around train lines due to the way they hunt. Alarmingly the environmental statement predicts the “loss of all breeding populations of barn owls within 1.5km of the Proposed Scheme”, ( Volume 3 states that this is the equivalent of 1% of the UK population). The ES accepts that this is significant, but the proposed mitigation for this impact is vague.
Overall, the environmental statement is raising more questions than it answers. The length of time given to read, digest and respond to this document is ludicrously short. Furthermore, the implication that there is other information that will be made available further on in the process (e.g. ground works, utilities works, survey results) means it is not possible for me to be sure that this information I have is accurate or complete. So whilst Parliament breaks for its 18 day recess over the Christmas period spare a thought for those of us glued to a computer screen trying to make sense of the information contained within the behemoth that is the HS2 environmental statement.
Luci Ryan, Ecological Impact Assessor (Ancient Woodland)