What is the Lower Thames Crossing?
The Lower Thames Crossing is a scheme proposed by Highways England that would cross the River Thames, connecting Essex and Kent. It is intended to relieve current pressures on the existing Dartford Crossing and reduce congestion in the surrounding areas. The crossing is also being tasked with supporting future growth plans in the area, particularly for housing in Essex and Kent.
Who is Highways England?
Highways England is a government-owned company that looks after England’s core road network. It has the responsibility of operating, maintaining and improving motorways and major A roads, working alongside the Department of Transport to do so.
Why is the Woodland Trust opposing this scheme?
There are 12 ancient woods and 15 veteran trees that either fall within or adjacent to the development boundary of the proposed route, including the Woodland Trust’s own Ashenbank Wood, which is also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its diverse range of invertebrates. These woods are under threat of varying levels of damage, loss and deterioration.
We aren’t opposed to the Lower Thames Crossing in principle but we have serious concerns about its environmental impact. Our main concerns over the crossing stem from the major road works that would be required to connect the crossing to the road networks north and south of the River Thames. To facilitate their plans, there would be considerable work needed to divert utilities infrastructure, such as gas mains and overhead lines, particularly around the existing A2 road.
So if the Woodland Trust already campaigned against this, why is it still an issue?
We first campaigned on this project back in 2016 regarding the initial route options. Highways England has since selected a preferred route and is now holding a non-statutory consultation based on responses to its 2018 consultation and further design refinements.
Despite concerns being raised by ourselves and a number of other environmental organisations it is still apparent that there could be serious impacts on a number of irreplaceable habitats. This includes the potential for our Ashenbank Wood site to be subject to damage and loss if needed for the relocation of a gas mains pipeline – thankfully this would be a worst case scenario yet the threat is still looming.
Furthermore, we believe we are simply not receiving the information we need about the level of impacts – Highways England must do more to provide us with that level of detail. We must keep up the pressure for them to do better for the natural environment.
Which ancient woods will be affected?
At this stage, the Trust is uncertain as to the specific impacts that the scheme will cause to ancient woods and trees – Highways England has so far been vague about the level of damage and destruction that is likely to occur.
However, we have undertaken our own analysis based on the scheme boundary changes. The ancient woods that make up the Shorne and Ashenbank Woods SSSI complex are the key areas of concern for us. These are the 12 ancient woods we believe could be facing damage or loss:
- Cole Wood
- Shorne Wood
- Brewrs Wood
- Brice's Plantation
- Ashenbank Wood
- Claylane Wood
- Rainbow Wood
- Ashen Shaw
- Franks Wood
- Hobbs Hole
- Codham Hall Wood
- Folkes Lane Woodland
It is apparent that 15 veteran trees could also potentially be impacted by the scheme.
It’s worth noting that not all of the scheme boundary will be developed and therefore it isn’t certain that woods within the boundary would face detrimental impact (i.e. some areas are being set aside for environmental mitigation). However, the facts are vague at this stage and so the full extent of impact remains unclear.
Why are these woods so special?
A number of the ancient woods make up a large complex of ancient woodland known collectively as Shorne Woods Country Park, such as Brewers Wood and Brice’s Plantation. A lot of these woods are also within areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Local Wildlife Sites (LWS), and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The ancient woods in this area are known to be home to a wide range of rare species, such as dormice, marsh tit and the three British woodpeckers, though as stated above the information provided as part of the consultation is still limited at this stage.
In a best case scenario, could there be no impact on ancient woodland?
Considering the number of valuable habitats in this area it will be particularly difficult for Highways England to incorporate a new road network without impacting ancient woodland. However, we believe that with careful consideration and alternative engineering solutions numerous areas of ancient woodland can be avoided. We will continue to engage with Highways England at every opportunity to ensure ancient woodland impacts are minimised where possible.
As long as ancient woods and veteran trees are likely to face adverse impacts we will continue to object to the scheme. Highways England must explore every possible measure to ensure that there is no impact on ancient woods and veteran trees, so we need your help to drive that message home.
Can the impacts be mitigated?
Ancient woodland is irreplaceable. As it cannot be recreated, its loss cannot be mitigated for. Any replacement planting must be referred to as compensation. No amount of additional planting can replace a habitat as biodiverse as ancient woodland and should only be implemented as a last resort.
What happens next?
Once this consultation has concluded, Highways England will submit a Development Consent Order (DCO) application to the Planning Inspectorate’s National Infrastructure Planning Department. If accepted, the plans will be examined by the Planning Inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport, who will then make a final decision on the scheme. The Woodland Trust will be engaging with the DCO process to ensure that ancient woodland is taken into consideration by government when they are determining this development.
Where can I find out more?
To see what Highways England is proposing, you can visit its main consultation page here.
What else can I do?
If you're local to the area, you could look for any ancient or veteran trees that you believe have not already been identified on the Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI). Find out more about the ATI and how to record trees here.