Report on trees and woodland habitats

High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 25th June 2019.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must prepare a report on—

(a) the likely effects of the scheduled works on trees and woodland habitats;

(b) steps to be taken to minimise or mitigate those effects.

(2) The report must include specific consideration of—

(a) ancient trees, including those on construction sites which will not be designated for long term railway use;

(b) tree felling, with particular reference to birdlife nesting and breeding seasons;

(c) wildlife habitat corridors; and

(d) woodland, including ancient woodland.

(3) The report must be laid before Parliament within one year of this Act being passed.’—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The new clauses proposes that the Secretary of State must prepare a report on the likely effects of the scheduled works on trees and woodland habitats and steps to be taken to minimise or mitigate those effects. The report must include specific consideration of ancient trees, including those on construction sites—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Order. It might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman to know that although he is very welcome to read out the new clause, he does not need to do so as it is on the amendment paper. If he wishes to do so to make his point, he is more than welcome to.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

Thank you for your advice, Mr Davies. If I may, I will finish reading the new clause, but I will not read out the subsequent new clauses to the Committee, for the sake of brevity.

The report must include specific consideration of tree felling, with particular reference to bird nesting and breeding seasons; of wildlife habitat corridors; and of woodland, including ancient woodland. The report must be laid before Parliament within one year of the Act being passed.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I do not see a need for the new clause. The environmental statements already report the likely significant effects of phase 2a on trees and woodland habitats, including on ancient and veteran trees and ancient woodland. They also set out the proposed mitigation and compensation for the likely effects of the railway. HS2 Ltd has published an ancient woodland strategy for the scheme that sets out the expected losses of ancient woodland habitat and the range of compensation measures proposed in response to those losses. We have made assurances to organisations such as the Woodland Trust about the protection of woodland and ancient trees.

Furthermore, I attend quarterly ministerial roundtable meetings with the environmental agencies to ensure that HS2 Ltd has its feet held to the fire on this important issue. Very little will have changed between the environmental information that has already been provided and the environmental information that will be published one year after Royal Assent.

Following extensive engagement with the Woodland Trust, HS2 Ltd was able to offer a number of assurances on woodland and ancient trees. It committed to retaining Noddy’s oak near Stockwell Heath in Staffordshire, along with five other veteran trees. The environmental minimum requirements for phase 2a include a key requirement that the nominated undertaker must use reasonable endeavours to adopt mitigation measures that will further reduce any adverse environmental impacts caused by phase 2a.

We will of course continue to engage with relevant stakeholders and interested parties through the national environment forum and through the environmental health sub-group of the phase 2a planning forum. I reiterate that the new clause should be withdrawn.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Reading East is stepping in for his colleague, and valiantly so. The idea is to make your speech when moving the new clause, but all is not lost—if he wants to speak to the new clause now, he is very welcome to do so.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

That is very generous and gracious of you, Mr Davies. I am sorry if I misunderstood the process while I am standing in for my colleague.

I appreciate that the Minister has taken some time to come back with the Government’s response, but it is worth highlighting some of those points in a little more detail because of the importance of wildlife. As we discussed this morning, it would be somewhat ironic if a positive and pro-environmental measure such as high-speed rail was inadvertently to damage habitats and the Government were unable to respond fully to those concerns.

From the previous stages of HS2, a number of issues have caused serious concern to residents, communities and the public more widely. Although the Bill itself clearly shows a response to some of those elements, it is not as comprehensive as it needs to be. That is why I am seeking a reassessment by the Government through the new clauses.

New clause 1 would require the Government to produce a report on how any actions by HS2 will impact on the natural environment—wildlife, birds and trees. The report could be laid before the Select Committee considering petitions on the potential threats to the natural environment. We have scrutinised the Bill to see whether there is a lack of clarity, and we have tabled the new clause to address that.

By bringing forth a report to be laid before Parliament, the Government would ensure greater focus and scrutiny of the HS2 project. The new clause calls for the report to be laid within a year of the passage of the Bill, which also means there is time for the Government to develop a greater scrutiny role over HS2 Ltd, which is obviously a separate company, and to ensure that it changes its practices and is prepared to give an answer to the House if hon. Members decide that it should do so.

Labour Members have serious concern about the impact of HS2 on the natural environment, as we have discussed a number of times, including this morning, whether on birds nesting, animals burrowing, or indeed the trees themselves. I know from previous debates and questions, which have been asked by Members from all parties, that this issue has been reported on a number of times. However, the approach, behaviour and actions of HS2 Ltd to date have demonstrated why it was crucial to table the new clause.

There have also been reports that HS2 Ltd is using the practice of netting bushes—it has been widely covered in the media in recent months—which clearly can cause real distress to animals, and especially birds, which breach the netting but can then become trapped. We call for the practice to cease. The company should instead seek to remove bushes and hedgerows at a time of year when birds are not nesting—this obviously relates to existing legislation and good practice. There is plenty of time in advance of these major works to reschedule them, to be far more sensitive to the rhythms of nature and, as a result, to do more on this front.

Likewise, it has been drawn to our attention that trees have been felled in the nesting season during the course of the programme. That is completely inappropriate, as it risks eggs, and indeed whole nests, falling to the ground. It is therefore vital that there are further restrictions on HS2, such that it schedules this work outside the nesting season. Although the Bill highlights that HS2 Ltd should follow the best examples of working with nature, including management of trees, in the first phase of the project the company has failed to live up to that. There are examples of felling taking place in the nesting season, and this practice should be halted immediately for phase 1 of the route. However, we also believe that the practice should change for phases 2a and 2b.

We believe that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that they take a more environmentally friendly approach to the project, especially in areas where the project is failing. The Government state that they will simply mitigate habitat loss with the plantation of additional new habitat in future, but that does not go far enough. On a number of occasions the Government have pledged to leave the environment better than they found it, as we all know. However, with destructive and unnecessary actions, such as netting and felling, especially at the wrong time of year, the Government’s pledge is obviously just empty rhetoric.

Labour Members know that conservation is very important to the public. It has an impact on farming and on ensuring that the richness of nature can be enjoyed by all, and we are strongly committed to improving the environment. In that regard, we believe that the Government have to be far more accountable for the actions of HS2 Ltd, especially as the company is at the early stages of a very large programme that will affect significant parts of the country.

By ensuring that the Government must produce a report, the new clause also seeks to provide the Government with a responsibility to set out how they will mitigate the actions that are being taken. I will provide a few examples. Although not common practice, can trees be excavated and moved, especially with a focus on the 27 veteran trees that line the phase 2a route? What wildlife corridors will be built during the construction of HS2 to allow small mammals, other animals and birds to move away from the construction zone? The Bill is silent on that, yet we know that wildlife, whether birds or animals, needs clear corridors that support the wider existence of species. To disrupt those corridors without taking steps to provide alternatives is negligent, yet the Bill is silent on that.

By calling for the Government to be accountable to Parliament on these issues, we will build confidence among MPs and residents that the Government are undertaking due diligence on these important factors, which, I am afraid to say, they have failed to demonstrate to date. It is worth adding that if our new clause is agreed, HS2 Ltd would be more accountable to the House, which I am sure we would all wish to see.

Section (2)(a) focuses on ancient woodlands, especially the points that will not form the actual HS2 route but will be used during construction, as we discussed this morning. The new clause calls for additional consideration to be made to ensure that trees are protected in these areas, since there is more latitude to avoid felling so many trees and removing so much of the natural environment. We believe that the Government, with HS2 Ltd, should ensure that any construction route and the site itself minimises the destruction of natural habitats and, where alternatives can be found, they must be found, including reducing the size of the construction sites to an absolute minimum.

I am sure that the Minister will understand Labour’s concerns, which have also been stressed during the petitions stage of the Bill. Although I know that different tunnelling arrangements were scrutinised at the petitions stage—Labour would seriously consider this, especially around Whitmore—we understand that the majority on the Select Committee determined that the costs would be prohibitive and therefore there is already a far greater cost to our natural environment to be paid. This was agreed at petitions stage.

Labour would approach this project differently. However, I am sure that the Minister will understand why I have brought forward the new clause and why we believe, sadly, that she is not doing enough to mitigate the harm that the Government’s approach to HS2 will cause to the natural environment.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s comments about ensuring that we have complete confidence in the project along its entire route. I agree that wildlife is important, as are trees and ancient trees. However, all his points are covered by the environmental statement, which, at 11,000 pages, is incredibly extensive. That is why I do not believe that we need another layer of reporting on a statement that is already out there. The environmental statement has been scrutinised independently and by the Select Committee, which has made its own decisions.

We have committed in our response to the Select Committee’s third special report that, in order to protect birds, we will provide bird diverters on new power lines near Parkgate, working with the West Midlands Bird Club. We continue to work with the environmental roundtable on these important issues. The Bill has taken into account the effect on wildlife, especially rare and protected species. A balance has to be struck between taking individual landowner’s property and providing land for mitigation.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that all the issues he has raised are already in the 11,000-page document. For that reason, I believe that he should withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving such a detailed reply and for the work on the bird diverters, which is a step forward. I appreciate that some work has been done on this already. However, on the points that we have made and on the new clause, I would like to press this to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 1 High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill — Report on trees and woodland habitats

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.