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Tue 14 July 2020
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Stuart Spray on how his quest to get clarification on the damage being caused to the environment by the HS2 project is being resisted.

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For the past three weeks, I have been in regular contact with HS2’s press office requesting comments, statements and evidence in support of some of its ‘innovative’ approaches to wildlife management. But it appears that it has had enough of my line of questioning.

Two days ago, following a seemingly innocuous request for a comment regarding nesting birds in an ancient woodland which is currently in the process of being felled, a member of the press team told me that “for this information, I’d recommend contacting our Helpdesk or FOI [Freedom of Information] team. Our press office is for accredited journalists only”.

In a follow-up email to one of Byline Times’ executive editors, the press team clarified its position, explaining that it had “deep concerns” over my “objectivity as a journalist” and questioned my “motives for asking the questions in the first place”. They referred to my apparent support for the naturalist Chris Packham and Extinction Rebellion (XR) on social media.

I did support Packham’s recent legal challenge against the Government’s decision to go ahead with HS2 and I do admire how XR’s peaceful mass protests have managed to galvanise a large part of the UK into talking about the issues surrounding climate change.

But I am an investigative environmental journalist and a fully paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), I am only interested facts and evidence and consider it my duty to report both sides of a story.

After spending 25 years working as an ecologist, I retrained as a journalist graduating with an MA in investigative broadcast journalism in 2019. My sole aim is to use my knowledge of ecology and conservation biology to challenge and hold to account organisations and Government departments that pay lip-service to protecting the environment.

And, right now, HS2 – the biggest programme of deforestation of the UK that my generation has ever seen – is at the top of my list.

My inquiries should be an opportunity for HS2 to boast about how it is fulfilling the  Government’s ambition “to employ world-class environmental standards that protect and enhance the natural and historic environment for the enjoyment of this and future generations”. 

I don’t blame HS2’s press office for the lack of content in their generic responses or for trying to avoid my questions altogether. Its problem is that HS2’s claims that there will be “no net loss for the environment” just don’t hold up to scrutiny. It is impossible to exhibit the “gold standard for the protection of the natural environment” whilst simultaneously cutting down large tracts of ancient woodland and hedgerow during the bird nesting season.

I also understand the difficulty in trying to promote HS2’s plans to remove soil from ancient woodlands this spring as “best practice” whilst being accused of a “betrayal of trust” by the Woodland Trust for the “the flawed and invariably unsuccessful process of soil translocation” which, according to its CEO Dr Darren Moorcroft, “will be carried out at completely the wrong time of year, flying in the face of professional standards and HS2’s original assurance that they’d do it when they should – when everything is dormant”.

The beleaguered press team can’t even rely on the Barn Owl Action Plan to help them spin a positive story. Last month, the RSPB, Barn Owl Trust and four Wildlife Trusts along the route have said that the plan, which professes to include “measures to provide additional nest sites and habitat for the species”, would result in killing “a nationally significant number of barn owls”.

I could go on. Put simply, the HS2 press office has a difficult job and, for that, I have some sympathy. But, facts are facts, and – as it stands – my hypothesis is that HS2 and the Government are attempting to ‘greenwash’ a project that has zero net benefit for the environment.

So, my challenge to the HS2 press team is this: do not ignore or block my requests for information or verification. Prove me wrong.


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