Last week, the Government produced their response to the Lords HS2 Select Committee report. For many environmentalists, the Government’s reaction to the report by Natural England – commissioned by the House of Commons HS2 Select Committee – was of most interest.
One key issue with HS2 is that it will be used in the future as a precedent, both by other Government projects, but also by private developers. And that is partly why there was such concern about the reaction.
Peter Delow, of HS2 and the Environment, looked through the Natural Englandand the earlier Select Committee presentations, on his blog before the Government’s response was published – see Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 1and Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 2.
In the second of the blogs, Peter writes:
In the oral submission that he gave to the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee on behalf of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT), Matthew Jackson (see footnote 1) provided some welcomed – well welcomed by me, at any rate – clarification of why Natural England (NE) had recommended that sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) should be removed from the HS2 no net loss (NNL) calculation (see footnote 2).
He stressed that removing these protected sites did not mean that “there will be no compensation or no redress for the impacts on those sites”, merely that “they’re not included in a calculation which is given the label of no net loss”. He told the Committee that this point was “absolutely fundamental”: developers should not be able to make the claim that, “I’ve had this impact on a site of special scientific interest, but overall there’s no net loss, so we don’t need to worry about it” (see footnote 3).
Mr Jackson said that implying that SSSIs can be destroyed without a loss to the natural environment “raises a grave threat to the statutory protection for these sites, across the UK” and that this was not just an issue for HS2, but was “about the implications going forwards” (see footnote 4).
Mr Jackson expanded on this theme in response to questions from the Committee (see footnote 5):
“Now, we’re not saying that those loses can’t be mitigated or in some cases, compensated for, and nor are we saying that all the habitats are irreplaceable. The issue is around the designation of those sites. As I said earlier, sites of special scientific interests (sic) are a sort of sample of important sites. Now, if you diminish that sample, the network of sites no longer fulfils the purpose for which they were designated, which was about ensuring the preservation of a sample of our most important sites.”
He added that, when damage is done to a SSSI, you can’t “designate more SSSIs as a result” (see footnote 6).
Lest the Committee had failed to get the point, Mr Jackson spelled out, in the simplest of terms, the principle that the RSWT was “concerned about” (see footnote 7):
“The principle that I was endeavouring to get across was exactly that one that what you lose is part of the designated suite of SSSIs and if you wrap it up in the no net loss calculations, you are presenting it to other developers elsewhere as saying, you can have an impact on one of these sites, but so long as you create some grass and/or plant some woodland elsewhere, you can clam (sic) you’ve having no net loss.”
The Woodland Trust acknowledged the Government’s response on the 17th January, saying “The Woodland Trust is relieved to see the Department for Transport has agreed to remove ancient woodland from its calculations on loss of biodiversity caused by HS2 – something it has argued for for years.”
Their Director of Conservation, Austin Brady, said
“The recognition by Government that ancient woodland should be excluded from any form of biodiversity offsetting calculations relating to HS2, is hugely significant – we have argued for years that this should be the case. HS2 Ltd could never have claimed that no net loss of biodiversity had been achieved in building the line when we know that 32 hectares of irreplaceable ancient woodland will be lost on Phase 1 alone.
“Going forward, we hope this will influence planning on Phase 2 with greater consideration being given to the avoidance of ancient woodland in the first place when designing the final route.
“Another step forward is the Government’s recognition that compensation for ancient woodland loss should be designed and delivered on a case-by-case basis, and that it will further consider compensation for ancient woodland losses within Defra’s 25 year plan for nature – we eagerly await the detail.
“However, the dismissal by Government of further recommendations by Natural England to adopt a compensatory planting ratio of 30 hectares of new woodland planting for every 1 hectare of lost ancient woodland is very disappointing. The current estimated 8:1 level is nowhere near appropriate, sets a negative precedent, and should be revisited as soon as possible.
“It’s vital that the compensation planting is considered in line with the significance of HS2 as a major infrastructure project and the likely precedent that may be set. Current compensation levels appear to owe more to the convenience of HS2 Ltd in seeking to minimise their own obligations rather than truly responding to the project’s wider environmental impacts.”