In November 2018 the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) launched a legal challenge to the decision of the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, to choose ‘Corridor B’ for the new highway and associated homes.
The trust argued that the decision was unlawful because Highways England failed to commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or a Habitats Regulation Assessment (HRA) as part of the process of selecting the three corridors put forward for consideration for the new expressway and homes. Both assessments would have considered the potential and likely environmental impacts of the corridor options.
The trust also argued that as the decision to narrow down the corridors limited the area within which the expressway would be constructed, it was important to properly assess the environmental impacts of each before the decision was taken.
The wildlife trusts made submissions to Highways England earlier in 2018 detailing their concerns about the potential environmental impact of the three corridors and made it clear they considered Corridor B to be by far the worst option, containing 51 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), three internationally important Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and 418 Ancient Woodlands.
The trust’s legal challenge was heard in the High Court on 19 & 20 June 2019.
In the judgment handed down today the court agreed with the Secretary of State, who argued that the decision to choose Corridor B did not constrain future decision-making in relation to the expressway and that because it was still possible that the expressway could be constructed outside of the preferred corridor, no strategic assessment was necessary. The judge added that routes outside of the selected corridor could still be suggested by members of the public during the expected public consultation in 2019. However, it is not clear how this could make up for a lack of assessment at a strategic level.
BBOWT were supported in their legal action by the national body the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, Plantlife and the Horton-cum-Studley Expressway Group.
Carol Day, solicitor at Leigh Day, who was assisted in the case by Lewis Hadler, said:
“The court’s judgment will be a disappointment to many who believe that proper assessment of the environmental impact of large infrastructure projects should be assessed from an appropriately early stage – at a point where alternative options are genuinely still on the table. It is unfortunate that decision-makers have ignored the concerns of specialist wildlife organisations and local people and pressed ahead without such strategic assessment, particularly for a scheme described as a project of a magnitude not undertaken in the UK for some 30 to 40 years. We will be carefully reviewing the judgment with our client, who is considering whether to appeal the decision.”