Otmoor is important to us and as you would expect, we're glad it is safe, at least from any direct impacts of the road and associated urban growth. But our position on the Expressway has always reflected the bigger picture, looking at the larger landscape areas that are richest in important sites, habitats and species.
Notwithstanding Highways England’s announcement in March 2020 that they were pausing work to develop the Oxford to Cambridge expressway project, our three main concerns about this road are:
For nature, Highways England’s preferred corridor for the Expressway is the worst for nature
- Compared to the alternatives that have now been taken off the table, the preferred corridor has the highest number and density of wildlife sites. Some of them carry the highest levels of legal protection, as SSSIs and as internationally important wildlife sites. Any route in this corridor therefore makes it much harder for Highways England to avoid direct or indirect damage and achieve even their own rather weak objective of ensuring “no net loss” of biodiversity (at a time when the Government is pressing other developers to deliver 10% net gain in biodiversity through their proposals).
Worse still, Highways England avoided any proper consideration of the relative wildlife value of the alternative corridors when the preferred choice was made, instead making the irresponsible assumption that any damage could simply be offset (i.e. compensated for). That’s not as easy as Highways England seem to think, and in the case of irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland full compensation is widely seen as impossible. The reality is that we will probably see even more loss of biodiversity in a region which is already one of the most nature-depleted in the UK, whatever clever accounting system for loss and gain in biodiversity is applied on paper.
- A major road like this takes a lot of land, so direct loss of habitat could be a major threat. When high road noise levels are introduced to formerly quiet landscapes, research shows the diversity and numbers of breeding birds are often reduced. And because of their width and high traffic volumes and speeds, such roads often form a serious barrier to the movement of many animals especially if solid “Jersey barrier” central dividers are used. Vehicles kill many animals and for some, this can become a threat to their local populations – barn owls and hedgehogs are good examples. Air and water quality can suffer locally as well, with insidious effects on semi-natural habitats like lowland meadows, rivers and streams through deposition of chemicals like nitrogen.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that globally 1 million species are at risk of extinction. The 2019 State of Nature report identifies that nationally 15% of wildlife species are at risk of extinction. Economic and infrastructure development has the ability to contribute to nature’s recovery through a biodiversity net gain approach, but at present the Expressway proposals seem destined to make a bad situation even worse.
There has not been a joined-up approach to planning for strategic transport infrastructure (the Expressway and East West Rail) together with housing
This is not just about a new road. The choice of preferred corridor was clearly based on its alignment with East West Rail (already at an advanced stage of delivery in this part of the Oxford to Cambridge Corridor), and the shared potential the Government says this offers to support major new settlements and urban growth. New settlements will bring their own challenges – direct land take and loss of locally important habitats, and likely indirect effects including impacts on air quality, on water resources that are already over-exploited in places, and from increased recreational pressure in fragmented and isolated wildlife habitats. The connection between the road and urban growth has been made loud and clear by the Government and yet they have refused to adopt a joined-up approach to considering the full, combined environmental impacts or to consider the range of alternative approaches that could be followed. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) mounted a legal challenge to the Government’s failure to apply Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to the Expressway corridor selection in 2018/19, supported by evidence from the RSPB, but lost the case.
It is not clear how building a major new road is consistent with reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Climate change is the biggest threat to nature and our own way of life. The speed and scale of climate change is widely recognised in scientific and environmental circles. We have to act fast or we will face increasing disruption and chaos including, ironically, to our own ability to travel safely and reliably. In May 2019 the UK Government declared a “climate emergency”, having already committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that we must reduce global carbon output by 45% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Huge reductions in carbon emissions are needed in all sectors, including transport.
The Department for Transport (DfT) is preparing the UK's first Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which will set out a programme to ensure carbon neutrality by 2050. While this is a step forward, the deadline of 2050 does not match the urgency of the climate and ecological crises we face: alongside partner organisations we are calling for more urgent action to achieve a zero-carbon transport sector by 2045, if not sooner - in line with the IPCC’s warning.
More locally, in autumn 2019 the England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) group* consulted on an outline Transport Strategy for consultation that sets out a welcome ambition for the transport sector to become zero carbon by 2050 (though again we think this timescale is too leisurely). In our shared response with the Wildlife Trusts we have called on the EEH to say more about how the Expressway fits with the urgent need to reduce transport-based carbon emissions. Even the furthest target date of 2050 is only thirty years away there’s no time to waste: the choices made from today onwards need to move us in the right direction, not take us in the wrong one.
The RSPB is working with partner organisations including BBOWT, the Woodland Trust and others to compile our responses, with the aim of reflecting a shared view as much as we can. The details will be developed once we have fully understood the proposals and assessed their impacts on wildlife sites and vulnerable species but our response is likely to be structured around the three main concerns highlighted above (impact on nature, lack of joined-up planning for transport, housing and infrastructure, and the conflict with targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).
*EEH is a sub-national transport body covering the Oxford-Cambridge growth corridor counties of Oxon, Bucks, Northants, Beds and Cambs, as well as Herts.