A skirmish won in a lengthy war

A skirmish won in a lengthy war

A full Court hearing on the government's failure to hold proper environmental consultation for the Ox-Cam Expressway has now been secured.

Our neighbours at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust made an important breakthrough yesterday, securing a High Court hearing about the level of environmental scrutiny that major infrastructure projects must be given.

The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway is a government-led proposal to fill a perceived gap in the strategic road network, providing a 2-lane route directly between the two cities. In our counties there are sections where such a road already exists, although changes are proposed to parts of the A421 and A428 and there will be an impact. From Milton Keynes to Oxford, however, the proposal requires an entirely new road. This new stretch of road could have some impact in Bedfordshire, but there are likely to be more major impacts for wildlife in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

A visualisation of the area affected by the Ox-Cam Expressway proposal

Map showing Corridor B of the Ox-Cam Expressway (indicative only) - Source: Highways England


Large infrastructure projects are supposed to come forward having been subject to a process called Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). However, for some time the government has been sidestepping this requirement. In effect they think there is a loophole in the law, which only requires SEA for “plans or programmes”. A different process called Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), which crucially doesn’t require public consultation on alternatives, applies to projects at the very final stages of planning – after the alternatives have effectively been discarded.

Similarities with HS2

I joined the Beds, Cambs, Northants Wildlife Trust last year from BBOWT, where I’d been involved in legal challenges, most recently in respect of the government’s approach to selecting the route of HS2. We worked with the HS2 Action Alliance on their case calling for SEA of the HS2 route proposals. As with the expressway, the government argued that, although they were investigating a single route for the new train line, it didn’t need an SEA because no final decision had been taken until parliament voted on whether the project should go ahead. We lost our case (in fact we lost in the High Court, won in the Court of Appeal, and lost again in the Supreme Court – legal challenge can be a rollercoaster ride). We then took the issue up with the European Commission. They wouldn’t step in to challenge the HS2 route, but crucially stated that future transport projects in the UK should be brought forward in line with the SEA legislation.

Ignoring the European Commission's view of the law

The approach taken with the expressway, where a route corridor has been chosen without a proper environmental assessment having taken place, shows that the government is intent on ignoring the law. The same approach is being proposed for the new section of East West Rail from Bedford to Cambridge, currently being consulted on (please respond via the link here and lobby your MP to say that an SEA should be part of the process!). All these projects will have an additional impact by directing where future housing development will go and no account is being taken of the effect that housing in the wrong places can have for wildlife across the chosen routes.

"It’s crucial that, if and when we leave the European Union, EU Directives, and the principles that underpin them, are translated into UK law"

Support is needed

We have been working with and are very grateful to our colleagues at BBOWT for bringing their legal challenge. Together with the Wildlife Trusts nationally and local conservation groups, we formally supported the action, and this Trust worked with BBOWT on the initial stages of developing the case. Yesterday’s win is a crucial step in the process of challenging this attempt to make decisions without proper scrutiny, but there’s a long way to go yet. We hope there will be a full hearing of the case in early summer, but of course by then the political (and legislative) background will almost certainly have changed significantly. 

The expressway case relies on legislation that enacts EU Directives, and it’s crucial that, if and when we leave the European Union, those directives, and the principles that underpin them, are translated into UK law. We are campaigning with our colleagues across the Wildlife Trusts for a strong and effective Environment Act, and you’ll be hearing much more from us about that in the near future….


Matt Jackson is  our Conservation Manager in Beds and Northants. He has 25 years’ experience of working in nature conservation, and has regularly represented Wildlife Trust at Public Inquiries. He represented the Wildlife Trusts nationally as the HS2 proposals went through parliament, appearing at Select Committee hearings, and helped secure significant improvements in the way the railway affects the natural environment.