Milner on Biodiversity- Blog #3

Edward Milner 

June 9, 2022 

A recent news item in the UK publicised the claim that the construction of 120,000 new homes was delayed because of a ruling by Natural England (the Government’s biodiversity agency) because pollution to local wetlands would result unless major changes were made to the builders’ plans. For a moment I was quietly astonished; environmental protection is rarely as assertive as this. In the UK protection of biodiversity, especially in aquatic environments – rivers, lakes, marshland – is a low priority; in many other countries it is virtually non-existent. And as for old-growth forests or ancient woodlands it’s just as bleak. 

Conflicts over damage to nature associated with construction of HS2, a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham (and beyond), are typical. Campaign groups of local residents have pointed out the environmental costs – to the fury of many politicians and railway enthusiasts using familiar anti-biodiversity arguments. ‘The alternative to HS2 is so very much more damaging…’ ranted Railway News, as if any rail development must be good for the environment. At Cubbington in Warwickshire a great swathe of destruction for the line has removed half a wonderful ancient woods (see photo above). 

Protecting nature needs rather more sophisticated thinking than that favoured by politicians, headline writers – and rail enthusiasts. The route of the HS2 project seems gratuitously perverse, until you understand why this particular route was chosen. Existing road and rail pathways were ignored; a virgin path had to be cut. To save money the route was deliberately chosen to do as much damage to nature as possible – parts of around thirty sites of ancient woodland were destroyed – because the alternative was claimed to be ‘more damaging’. Costing (by accountants) ignored the value of ancient woodland as ‘insignificant’. In a few places tunnelling to reduce damage was accepted, but only after major campaigns by members of parliament whose constituencies were affected. Unfortunately, while people can be relocated, houses and roads rebuilt, ancient woodland cannot be recreated – not in any human timescale. The developers of HS2 have offered what is called ‘mitigation’ – derisory plantings of saplings on open land nearby. 

To return to the delayed homes, there is apparently political pressure – due to ‘Government priorities’ – for politicians to overrule Natural England’s stance. It is claimed to be perverse; clearly new homes are needed urgently so planning constraints – what ex-prime minister David Cameron once referred to as ‘green crap’ – should be ‘relaxed’. That is precisely what was done to agree the route for HS2. 

Across the world much of the environmental damage to pristine environments – from the building of roads through ‘protected areas’, wanton destruction of old-growth forests, uncontrolled logging or the draining of uncontaminated wetlands – is actually/often in breach of national environmental law, forest protocols or planning regulations. But when these are not enforced or are allowed to be overridden by political or commercial pressure, the damage continues. Of course, new homes must be built and railway lines upgraded, but in the long run wanton destruction of nature may be more damaging. Far from relaxing rules, I suggest that responsible political leadership should be working to strengthen environmental 

protections not weakening them, looking for more sophisticated solutions to projects like new railway lines or housing developments that accord a true value to nature.

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