HC Deb 04 December 1991 vol 200 cc249-50
6. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what new proposals he will be putting forward to protect the environment of Oxleas wood in south-east London.

Mr. Yeo

English Nature is discussing with the London borough of Greenwich the adoption of a management plan for the wood.

Mr. Townsend

As the wood is an 8,000-year-old oak wood only eight miles from the centre of London on a site of special scientific interest, could not the Department have done more to insist that the important new road going close to my constituency was cut-and-cover? Following the thought of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), may I invite the Minister to come there for a walk with his dog on Christmas day to envisage the damage that the new road will cause?

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his invitation. I was brought up until the age of seven near Oxleas wood and I do not recall so much publicity about the value of that 8,000-year-old wood 40 years ago. A cut-and-cover tunnel would involve slicing a great swathe through the wood to construct the tunnel, quite apart from the £10 million that it would cost. In addition, such a tunnel would involve the closure of the south-facing slip roads at Shooters Hill and would increase traffic on local roads. English Nature is discussing the management plan and proposes the readoption of the practice of coppicing. It also proposes more exploitation of the wood for educational purposes. The local borough has proposed that the wood should be declared a local nature reserve.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Are not the Government missing an opportunity to be both good Europeans and good environmentalists at the same time? Would not it be easy to accede to the commissioner's request to change the three points in the regulation which the Commission says are defective and deal with Crown immune areas, reduce the latitude given to authorities and ensure that environmental assessments are recorded in writing so that we have proper regulations and proper environmental impact assessments? That would test whether Oxleas wood, Twyford down and other such places would survive if there were proper implementation of European law.

Mr. Yeo

As I have made clear, the disagreement between the Government and the Commission does not involve the merits of the case, but the procedures. I do not think that many people are fully aware of that. The Government intend to comply with the Commission's directive and have an exceptionally good record of compliance with directives on environmental assessments. In this case, we followed the procedures in operation at the time. We are good Europeans. For the reasons that I gave in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), I believe that we are looking after the interests and future of the wood as thoroughly as any reasonable person could.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does my hon. Friend accept that the change is that there is now a proposal to cut a road through the wood whereas 40 years ago there was not? Would not it be legally wise and politically sensible not to go ahead with the compulsory order to bring in bulldozers until difficulties with the European Commission and local people have been resolved? I can tell my hon. Friend that local people would not mind losing the south-facing slip roads.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his offer to defend increasing traffic in his immediate neighbourhood. A cut-and-cover tunnel involves cutting, so considerable damage would be inflicted on the wood if that alternative were chosen. In addition, I do not believe that it would necessarily be the most cost-effective use of resources in terms of environmental output to spend such a substantial sum on that project.

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