Clearances of ancient woodlands for HS2 must be paused until an independent review of the £88bn high-speed line is delivered, the government has said.
However, clearances deemed absolutely necessary to avoid major costs and impacts on the construction schedule can still go ahead, the Department for Transport said.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told HS2 Ltd to review its programme to assess what woodland removal can be halted until after the Oakervee review, which is expected as early as next month.
It is not clear how much woodland clearance is already under way. The Woodland Trust said HS2 was planning to start work on 11 sites later this autumn.
Shapps said he recognised the concerns of local residents and campaigners that irreversible work could be undertaken in woodlands while the future of the project remains in doubt. The government has promised a “go-or-no-go” decision on HS2 by the end of the year. HS2 Ltd is continuing with other preparatory works.
Shapps said: “There is no sense in hiding the challenges HS2 faces, or masking the difficult decisions that need to be taken.
“So, as Douglas Oakervee’s review continues, we must take a sensible approach and recognise that some works simply cannot be undone later.
“Having listened to the concerns of affected residents and parliamentary colleagues, I have ordered HS2 Ltd to consider what works affecting ancient woodland clearances can be delayed for the duration of the review.”
Luci Ryan, an ecologist at the Woodland Trust, said: “This is a welcome step in the right direction for our ancient woodlands, but unfortunately these woods remain threatened as HS2 can still decide for themselves whether works continue or not. Until the outcome of the review all ancient woodlands should be off limits full stop. Our welcome is therefore cautious.”
An HS2 Ltd spokesperson said: “We are committed to reducing the new high-speed railway’s impact on ancient woodlands. As highlighted by the secretary of state, we must strike a sensible balance between keeping the programme on track, and recognising that some works cannot be undone.
“We are working with the Department for Transport and our contractors to assess these areas and their impacts while the review is ongoing.”
HS2 suggest that only 43 of 52,000 ancient woodland sites in England will be affected on the route between London and Crewe, and over 80% of the total area of those 43 sites will remain intact and untouched.
The review, led in conjunction with prominent critics of the scheme, is expected to assessthe costs and benefits of HS2, and could recommend a modified version of the railway, such as running slower trains or changing its London terminus.
Earlier this month, the government revealed it expected HS2 to be delayed by five to seven years, and to run another £26bn over budget, revising its price up from £56bn in 2015 to £88bn, in line with inflation.
Based on a report from the HS2 chairman, Allan Cook, it said the first phase from London and Birmingham would likely not be ready until 2031, while the entire network including lines to Manchester and Leeds might not be completed until 2040.