Unfinished business, part 2

This is part two of a series that Peter Delow is running on his blog HS2 and the Environment.

(… continued from Unfinished business, part 1, posted on 22 May 2015).

Anyone who has spent time in Committee Room 5 in the Palace of Westminster in recent months will attest that conditions are somewhat cramped, particularly for members of the public. Despite this, those responsible for organising the Committee appear to have found room to accommodate no less a beast than a full-sized elephant, which has been standing in a corner of the room throughout the seven months that the Committee has been hearing petitioners. Strange as it may seem, petitioner after petitioner has been all too aware of the great hulk of this beast, but it appears to have been largely unnoticed by the Members of the Committee.

Unusually for HS2, this elephant is not white – it is actually green – and it represents the enormous damage that HS2, in its current form, will inflict upon our natural environment. If you find it hard to believe that the Members of the Select Committee are somehow managing to avoid recognising this pachyderm in their midst, you need look no further for confirmation than the Committee’s First Special Report of Session 2014-15. That the HS2 project would be very damaging to the environment is surely not in dispute (see footnote 1), and yet the Committee’s report signally fails to acknowledge this damage or demonstrate any inclination on the part of the Committee to tackle this issue.

In fact, the report demonstrates a smugness about this issue that is hard to credit. Paragraph 29 declares, “We recognise in any event that in the design process for High Speed 2, successive Secretaries of State have already made substantial adjustments to mitigate the effects of the railway …” and we are also told that “[a]dditional provisions with further mitigation are also in preparation”. At the same time, the report fails to record the evidence presented to the Committee that in one location the environmental impact of HS2 has actually been considerably increased since the 2011 public consultation; and similar detrimental design changes have been seen elsewhere on the route (see footnote 2).

The report totally fails to give any consideration of whether the impacts that HS2 would have upon our natural environment are justifiable, or whether some are reasonably avoidable, or whether the proposed mitigation is adequate. The environmental aspects are only addressed in connection with three tangential issues: the adequacy of the Environmental Statement (paragraph 135 and see below); the possibility of using the Community and Environment Fund to make “moderate … ecological improvements” (paragraph 94); and, the impact of mitigation/compensation measures on landowners close to the line of the route (paragraph 88).

Probably the environmentally most challenging problem associated with HS2 is the impact that it would have upon ancient woodlands. It is an undisputed point that lost ancient woodland is “irreplaceable” and there is no general consensus amongst developers and environmentalists on whether compensation for the loss of this habitat is feasible and, if so, how compensation may be provided. Yet, this issue gets not a mention in the Committee’s report.

There is no excuse for this omission. When I addressed the Committee on behalf of my community I presented evidence on government policy to protect ancient woodland, although I was asked to skip much of what I wanted to say on this point by the Chairman, and on the inadequacy of the proposed compensation measures (see footnote 3). The Committee’s response in its report to our pleas to save our woodland (paragraph 62) fails to acknowledge that it is ancient woodland, referring to it only as a “highly valued local amenity”. Whilst I am glad that evidence from our local community on this latter point of the value of the woodland to us has been acknowledged by the Committee, it is not the prime reason why the woodland should be saved; that reason lies in its value to the nation, a value that the Committee appears set to ignore.

The Committee’s standpoint on the accuracy of the Environmental Statement (ES), as expressed in paragraph 135 of its report, is that, after hearing submissions from HS2 Action Alliance and Warwickshire County Council on this issue, plus representations on points of detail from a number of petitioners including three wildlife trusts and their national umbrella body, all expressing reservations about the information within the ES, the appropriateness of assessments therein, and/or the mitigation and compensation proposals it specifies, is that it does “not believe that a case was made out for there being any fundamental defect in the environmental statement”.

This reinforces an impression that I have gained from the proceedings to date in Committee Room 5 that the Members of the Committee are inclined to place too much emphasis on the contents of the ES, and the evidence in support from the Promoter’s expert environmental witness, when set against submissions from petitioners; the view of the Promoter generally appears to prevail irrespective of the credentials of any witnesses supporting the opposing view. I am also troubled by the apparent closed-minded approach and blind faith in the Promoter’s evidence that is demonstrated by the questioning of HS2 Action Alliance legal representatives recorded in paragraphs 38 to 81 of the transcript for the morning of Thursday 23rd October 2014.

I sympathise with the members of the Committee; how are they, as non-experts, to weigh up conflicting testimony from the experts put up by either party? However, there is a solution, which is that the Committee should appoint its own expert advisers in the main disciplines for which it is called upon to rule. Whilst this would require the Committee to revisit an earlier decision not to do this, it would be far preferable to placing, as its Members appear to do now, far too much reliance on the opinions offered by the Promoter.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes: 

  1. In my blog A Daniel come to judgement, part 2 (posted 8 Aug 2013) I noted the observation by Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Sullivan that: “The Respondent [i.e. the Secretary of State, as represented in the Court] was not able to identify any current UK project which is likely to have more significant effects on the environment [than HS2]”.
  2. See paragraphs 134 to 144 in the transcript of the HS2 Select Committee session held on Tuesday 20th January 2015 and slides A718(10) to A718(14) in the accompanying exhibits.
  3. For my presentation on the need to protect ancient woodland refer to paragraphs 229 to 237 of the transcript of the HS2 Select Committee session held on Tuesday 20th January 2015 and slides A715(17) to A715(20) in the accompanying exhibits. For what I said about compensation for ancient woodland loss see paragraphs 265 to 274 and slides A718(34) to A718(36) – the links to transcript and exhibits are the same as for footnote 2.

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