The RSPB and three local Wildlife Trusts have urged regional transport body England’s Economic Heartland to adopt higher ambitions to decarbonise transport and restore nature in the face of the twin climate and ecological emergencies.
The group of four wildlife conservation organisations, who between them have more than 218,000 members in the area covered by England’s Economic Heartland (EEH), were responding to the recent public consultation on an Outline Transport Strategy for the region.
The recent State of Nature 2019 report found that climate change is driving widespread changes in the abundance, distribution and ecology of the UK’s wildlife.
While welcoming the Strategy’s recognition that the transport sector needs to change to move towards a zero-carbon future and deliver “net gain” for the environment, they called for EEH to go further in their ambition and commit to making the region’s future transport network truly sustainable by supporting measures to limit and adapt to climate change and reverse biodiversity declines.
In particular, the charities highlighted concerns about proposals for two major transport infrastructure projects in the region, the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway and East-West Rail, which they say in their present form are incompatible with the UK’s legally binding target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Despite a recent Government announcement that it would be publishing the UK’s first Transport Decarbonisation Plan next year, current proposals will see East-West Rail running highly polluting diesel-electric locomotives, while the Expressway will result in a significant increase in car use and associated emissions – something the road-building agency Highways England has so far failed to address.
Colin Wilkinson, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer: “Neither the Department for Transport nor the bodies responsible for delivering the Expressway and East-West Rail have presented any evidence of how they would contribute positively to achieving net-zero emissions nationally by 2050, let alone earlier. This seems to be wholly incompatible with the urgent need to reduce emissions from the transport sector. That is why we are asking England’s Economic Heartland to explicitly support the need for carbon impact assessments for both the Expressway and East-West Rail.”
The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway and East-West Rail are key components of the Oxford to Cambridge Growth Arc – proposals the BBC has described as a “mega-development” that could see up to a million new houses built between the two university cities by 2050. The routes followed by the Expressway and East-West Rail will have a significant influence over the location of any new residential and commercial development, which could include new towns and villages.
To date though, the charities are not aware of any environmental assessments or studies that consider the links between the transport infrastructure and housing components of the Growth Arc proposals, or the cumulative impacts these could have on wildlife and the environment. The charities have called for the Transport Strategy to explicitly support the need for these assessments to be carried out.
Matthew Stanton, Head of Planning at Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust: “The combined effects of the Expressway, East-West Rail and the associated development that will follow the routes laid down by these major road and rail links have huge implications for nature, not only in terms of their impact on habitats and wildlife, but also on water supply, flooding, air quality and a host of other natural services that affect people’s health and quality of life. It is crucial that these factors are properly understood and accounted for when planning future transport infrastructure.
“Ultimately, a fully integrated approach to transport infrastructure – one that truly considers people and the natural environment, as well as business and the economy – could set a global exemplar for a better, more sustainable region, if the focus is on sustainable transport rather than more roads for private cars. The proposed Growth Arc could offer an opportunity that has not been seen in the UK for half a century. A potential development of such a scale can be shaped and fashioned with wide-ranging new policies and fresh innovation. We call upon EEH to grasp this opportunity to get things right: to carefully build a region in which businesses will prosper and where our communities, and wildlife will thrive.”
Quotes from supporting organisations
RSPB England Director Emma Marsh said: “Climate change is the greatest challenge facing society, not least because of its impacts on the natural world, where it threatens countless habitats and species and puts the health of the ecosystems we depend on for air, water and food, at risk. We urgently need to rise to this challenge by preventing the worst impacts of climate change and helping reverse the alarming declines in some of our most vulnerable species. Transport is responsible for a third of UK carbon dioxide emissions and has been the slowest sector to decarbonise, while the building of roads and railways has contributed to the destruction and fragmentation of habitats – creating island nature reserves of our few remaining nature-rich places. England’s Economic Heartland have a chance to change this by setting genuinely ambitious goals for transport in the region to become truly sustainable and help restore nature. I hope they will give serious consideration to our recommendations and include them in the next iteration of their Transport Strategy.”
Chief Executive of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, Estelle Bailey: “The South East of England is one of the most densely populated regions of Europe - facing significant development, severe water stress and pressures on wildlife and the natural environment. We seriously question the assumptions behind building an Expressway from Oxford to Cambridge and the associated million new homes and additional transport infrastructure.
“The five counties of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc still hold a rich tapestry of ancient woodlands, wildflower meadows and gently undulating ridge and furrow fields which have survived from the Middle Ages. There remain some beautiful fragments of Chilterns beechwoods and chalk grasslands plus the wetlands of Otmoor and the Fens. All of these habitats and associated species are under threat from this unprecedented scale of proposed housing and transport infrastructure. A healthy natural environment underpins our economy and well-being. Planning for nature’s recovery at scale must be integrated into future plans to ensure sustainability, prosperity and a good quality of life for all.”
Conservation Manager, The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, Matt Jackson: “Across Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire our natural environment is already under huge pressure, and increased housing, if poorly located, could be the final straw for some of our most important habitats, including the ancient woodlands of Cambridgeshire, or the wet grasslands of the Nene and Ouse valleys. Transport infrastructure plays a huge role in determining future growth patterns, and it’s therefore vital that both the protection and enhancement of the natural environment is fully considered when new rail and routes are being considered.”
Chief Executive of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, Lesley Davies: “Our natural world is in trouble. We are facing increasing pressures in our area from development, over-abstraction of water and fragmentation of habitats, at a time when the State of Nature report has underlined that we must act now to give wildlife a positive future. We hope that the EEH will seriously consider our response to put forward a strategy that delivers ambitious sustainability goals that work for both people and wildlife.”