What price the environment?

It has been obvious that the biggest glaring hole in the plans for HS2 since the outset have been around the environmental case. Whilst the business case for HS2 clearly does not stack up, at least HS2 Ltd, the DfT and big business cheerleaders have tried to justify it. But showing exactly where their priorities lie, they just haven’t done the work on environmental effects, meaning the supposed £33bn cost of just building the line has to skyrocket, as continues to happen in California.

We know that the assessments of what HS2 means to the environment haven’t been done properly, because that’s what everyone who knows about that stuff says. The Environment Agency has backed up what we’ve said that about the Government not knowing what the impact on water supplies is saying; “There are potentially significant risks to water resources”, Natural England have warned of “Severe and significant effects”, English Heritage have said they haven’t investigated enough land, the Forestry Commission have bemoaned the loss of ancient woodland, and just before they were abolished in the cuts, The Sustainable Development Commission said; “HS2 is completely unsustainable and it will mean putting in a massive ongoing subsidy into something which only benefits the richest in society.”

Those are just the Government bodies, when you look at the main environmental charities in the UK, they are more or less all there from Friends of the Earth to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. All the points these groups have made in the environmental case and the lack of a full Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) thus far have one inescapable conclusion; they jack up the cost by an unknown amount. The only counter the Government seems to be proposing to this is removing existing legislation to protect and safeguard our most important wildlife sites. The Wildlife Trusts claim 170 habitats could be impacted, just from the first stage of HS2.

The other thing the Government seem to have ignored up to now is of course themselves. You may remember in June the National Ecosystem Assessment was published. This document put economic values on what the natural world provides for free. So if you are saying that the countryside has an economic benefit to the well-being of the nation, then surely every project which destroys a local environmental has to have a cash value factored in for that loss?

As always with HSR there is an international comparison about how this might work out floating around. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has released Environmental Impact Reports the Fresno-Merced-Bakersfield section of their 220mph train. Previous estimates had the price tag for this section of the line at about $7 billion, but the EIRs show the combined cost for the Central Valley section would be at least $10 billion and could be higher than $13 billion.

Back at the outset in 2008, the full Californian network had a familiar-sounding price to HS2 of $33.6bn. By 2009 that was already up to $42.6. In February, our Californian counterparts, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) used the rail authorities own figures to come up with a cost of $65 bn, which in May was backed up by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office who came up with $67 bn.

This mirrors the position in the UK, as when you go by the book and add in the cost of the trains, the VAT and the interest on the loans you’re looking at mid-sixties. You’ve then got the EIR, or in our case EIA to come in. Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of CARRD said; “A project of this size is not in the realm of financial possibilities. So you either just say no to the project or you make some changes.” The California High Speed Rail Authority will produce an updated business plan in October. I’m sure we’ll get another one of those soon……

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