Conservationists are challenging proposals that would cut in two Oxleas Wood in south-east London. The woodland lost would then be 'recreated' on nearby fields.
Nigel Pleming QC, for the objectors, said ancient woodland was a national treasure that could not be recreated. The result would be 'some kind of pale pastiche - a Disneyland woodland', he told the court.
Nine people who live near Oxleas are appealing against the compulsory purchase procedures in a hearing that could have wide repercussions for the road-building programme. It is thought to be the first test of the obligation to provide new land of 'equal advantage' where public open space is lost through a compulsory purchase; lawyers say the phrase has not previously been defined.
The 'Oxleas nine' are personally liable for the costs of the case, which could be up to pounds 100,000 if it goes to appeal. Their campaign is backed by conservation groups and environmentalists including Professor David Bellamy and Jonathon Porritt.
Outside the High Court yesterday, Mr Porritt described the dispute over Oxleas as 'absolutely critical' for conservation in the United Kingdom. 'It is a national issue which epitomises the Government's vandalism and folly,' he said. Dr Bellamy said this was the first generation which, 'knowingly and with malice aforethought', was destroying its heritage.
Friends of the Earth said that of the 161 sites of special scientific interest threatened by roads, at least five could be affected by the outcome. These are at Chobham, Hindhead and Thursley in Surrey, Snelsmore in Berkshire and Blows Down in Bedfordshire. The Oxleas case could set up a 'legal road-block' in the path of the Department of Transport, it said.
Compulsory purchase of open space must be subject to special parliamentary procedure unless 'equally advantageous' land replaces it. The objectors are challenging the Government's failure to invoke that procedure.
Mr Pleming said the Government's case rested on the plan to take top soil from Oxleas to nearby Woodlands Farm and plant trees there. During the 10 to 14 years that the trees were growing, the public would be excluded from nine-tenths of the new site.
'Fourteen years is almost a generation. It is certainly a generation of children and they would be excluded from 90 per cent of the exchange land,' he said.
Experts were virtually unanimous that ancient woodland, typically 8,000 years old, could not be recreated, he said. Oxleas, which is the largest ancient woodland near London, was saved in the 1920s after a public subscription against urbanisation. 'The exchange of a field, with promises, for an existing forest is simply absurd,' Mr Pleming said.
The European Commission has yet to decide whether the Government has breached environmental assessment procedures in giving permission for the scheme. The case continues.