Ever heard of HS2 Ltd? Why yes, you say – it’s that company in charge of building the country’s second high speed railway straight through some of our most precious habitats and threatening, at latest count, 83 ancient woods.
How about Highways England? Perhaps not. This is a company being set up by the Government – courtesy of the Infrastructure Bill currently going through parliament. It will be responsible for delivering the Government’s new £15 billion road building programme – the Roads Investment Strategy (RIS).
Highways England has flown very much under the radar until now. But from April the company will control vast sums of taxpayers’ money, and will begin delivering a countrywide programme of upgrades to our major road network.
Why does it matter?
Highways England is being created at a hurtling pace – to a timescale those working on the HS2 project can only dream about.
This has led to concerns across the environmental NGO sector and among some MPs that there could be serious oversights and omissions, particularly related to the requirements and limitations under which it will operate.
Indeed as an arms length public body, ensuring that comprehensive standards on environmental protection are enshrined within the company from the outset is a must.
What is the Woodland Trust doing?
At the Trust we have been working to influence a number of crucial areas, including the licence Highways England will operate under, as well as its Watchdog (called Passenger Focus) and Monitor (run by the Office of Rail Regulation).
So far, we’ve seen some welcome developments, including a new section of the draft licence that focuses on the environmental requirements and responsibilities of Highways England. Before we, and others, got involved, this was entirely absent. But we still have substantial concerns, particularly around the RIS itself.
The focus of this is ostensibly on upgrading the existing motorway network, but according to our analysis, as many as over 30 new road building schemes threaten ancient woods and trees.
Just before Christmas, Highways England published a strategic business plan for 2015-2020. It includes promises to produce a delivery plan containing better environmental outcomes, as well as a biodiversity action plan by June 2015. In addition, £300 million of the total spend has been ring-fenced for the environment – some yet to be allocated – which leaves much opportunity for influence.
One may wonder about the need for this approach while the company is still being shaped, as opposed to simply responding to planning applications and consultations as they arise. But a look at the first road consultation on our radar in relation to this new spend already shows three sections of ancient woodland under threat from the bulldozer. Much more still to do.