One of the particularly controversial aspects of the HS2 project has been the stated aim of the Government to achieve a zero net loss of biodiversity as the result of its construction. A number of environmentalists, speaking on behalf of petitioners to the House of Commons Phase 1 Select Committee, have complained about the way that HS2 Ltd has set out to demonstrate “no net loss” (NNL) and the measures that have been proposed to compensate for biodiversity loss. Indeed, the Committee had to wait until its final couple of months of sitting for HS2 Ltd to publish details of its methodology and calculation for determining the biodiversity loss balance for Phase 1 of HS2, and even then the whole process remained veiled in a degree of secrecy and confusion, as HS2 Ltd had simply failed to provide the necessary level of transparency.
So, although HS2 Ltd was claiming that the proposals in the Phase 1 Environmental Statement would result in the reduction of approximately 3 per cent in “the number of biodiversity units”, and that this represented “good progress … towards the goal of no-net loss” (see footnote 1), the subject remained, and still remains, surrounded in controversy.
In an attempt to cast some very necessary light upon this issue, the Commons HS2 Select Committee used its valedictory report to “direct the Promoter to identify an independent third party to review the different net loss metrics and publish its findings so that HS2 Ltd can be challenged on its figures if appropriate”. The Committee suggested Natural England as “one possibility” (see footnote 2).
Natural England was duly tasked with carrying out this review and, as the Government’s statutory advisor on the natural environment, there could not have been a better choice. This body’s own verdict is that its report, recently published, “will be challenging to HS2 Ltd” (see footnote 3). My reading of it is that it is almost a total vindication of all the criticisms that we had heard rehearsed before the Commons Select Committee.
Amongst a whole raft of comments and suggestions for improvement made in the Natural England report, two of the most significant recommendations concern the treatment of ancient woodland. Despite all the criticism that it has attracted, HS2 Ltd has maintained the totally inconsistent, and frankly ridiculous, standpoint of recognising ancient woodland as an “irreplaceable” habitat, whilst at the same time treating it in the no-net loss metric as if its loss is something that can be offset.
The two Natural England recommendations are:
- “that irreplaceable habitats and protected areas, notably ancient woodland and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), are taken out of the HS2 NNL metric as their inclusion gives the impression of tradability for non-tradable biodiversity resources” and that a “separate recognition of these losses, that considers and makes explicit compensation, would be more appropriate” (see footnote 4)
- “HS2 Ltd should aim to create 30 hectares of new woodland for every hectare lost, where ancient woodland is to be replaced by new woods” (see footnote 5)
As someone who has petitioned the House of Lords HS2 Select Committee suggesting changes to the treatment of ancient woodland along these lines (see footnote 6), you might think that I would be overjoyed with these findings of the Natural England report. Well I am, to a point, but my enthusiasm for the report is dampened somewhat by two additional factors.
In the first place the Natural England report appears to accept that it is probably too late to improve the situation for Phase 1. For example, the recommendation to create 30 hectares of new woodland for every hectare of ancient woodland lost is qualified by the sentence (see footnote 5):
“If that ambition proves legally impracticable to implement for Phase 1, it certainly should be implemented for Phase 2.”
The second dampener is the Government’s response to the report. It merely acknowledges that it has “noted the report and its recommendations”. On the recommendations regarding the treatment of ancient woodland, the Government appears to dismiss them as merely “a stimulus for debate” since “the evidential basis is lacking”.
The Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts appear to share my disappointment at the Government’s reaction. The former notes the Department for Transport’s “refusal to accept the findings of the Government’s own statutory body NE on this” and identifies a number of associated questions that the Trust is “waiting for answers from HS2 Ltd on”. The latter is “disappointed with the Government’s immediate rejection of key findings from their own advisors” and finds it “unacceptable that HS2 Ltd has ignored” the advice from Natural England.
With both organisations scheduled to appear before the Lords Select Committee on Wednesday 23rd November, it will be very interesting to hear what they have to say on this matter.
And if you need any reminder just how much ancient woodland carnage Phase 1 will cause, you might like to refer to my Lords exhibit A155(13) on which I have named all of the ancient woodlands that will be directly affected.
- See paragraph 4.1.2 in the report HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation, HS2 Ltd/Department for Transport, December 2015.
- See paragraph 303 in the publication Second Special Report of Session 2015-16, House of Commons Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, 22nd February 2016.
- See the third paragraph of the Chairman’s Foreword in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
- See paragraph 6 in the Executive Summary of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
- See paragraph 23 in the Executive Summary of Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
- See paragraphs 368 and 369 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the House of Lords HS2 Select Committee held on Monday 18th July 2016. See also exhibit A1559(19), which I used to illustrate this part of my oral submission.
Exhibits A155(13) and A1559(19) have been extracted from the bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee by me on behalf of Cubbington Parish Council and published on the website of the Lords HS2 Select Committee.