A senior minister warned today that the proposed £42.6bn HS2 high-speed rail line could damage irreplaceable ancient woodland.
David Heath, the minister for agriculture, said other environmental impacts along the planned route linking London to cities in the Midlands and northern England could be mitigated, but “you can’t grow old trees”.
He said officials from the Environment Agency and Natural England had been told to “look critically at what is proposed” and that issues would be examined in an “exhaustive” parliamentary process.
Answering questions from party members at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow he said it was a “major government scheme” but “from my point of view, sitting in Defra, we have instructed our officers in the Environment Agency and Natural England to look critically at what is proposed and to give exactly the same impartial advice I would expect them to give in any other context”.
“They will tell us what the consequences are, where there are areas of mitigation,” he said. “There is one thing that … more than slightly concerns me, and that is where it touches on areas of ancient woodland, because you can mitigate lots of things but you can’t grow old trees.”
The Woodland Trust has warned that 33 areas of ancient woodland lie along the route, and that another 34 near it could be affected by noise and disruption.
Mr Heath said later that he nevertheless remained committed to the scheme.
“I fully support HS2 and recognise that it is essential to make this investment in order to deal with the looming capacity crisis on our existing network,” he said.
“During a meeting with members at Lib Dem conference I simply confirmed that Natural England and the Environment Agency will look at the impact of the route as they would any scheme of this nature.”