Government rejects Government’s environmental advice on HS2

Last week, the Government finally got round to publishing a report about HS2 by Natural England and then immediately rejected some of the key findings.  Natural England are the DEFRA body who advise the Government about environmental issues – and had been asked to review HS2 environmental offsetting metrics by the the HS2 Commons Select Committee.

The report confirmed that ancient woodland and SSSIs should be removed from HS2 Ltd calculations that attempt to prove the scheme will achieve ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ so it was cautiously welcomed by both the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust.

However, the Wildlife Trust said they were “very disappointed with the Government’s immediate rejection of key findings from their own advisors”.

Earlier this year The Wildlife Trusts spotted that HS2 Ltd had quietly changed the way that Government has previously worked out how much damage was being caused by development and challenged the approach before the House of Commons Select Committee. This is a vital calculation for making sure that full and adequate compensation is provided for any damage caused by construction of the railway. The calculation used will make a huge difference to the amount of habitat created. The Wildlife Trusts are extremely concerned that as a result, there is a major shortfall in the level of compensation being provided by HS2 Ltd for the loss of wildlife and habitats.

In addition The Woodland Trust has argued that ancient woodland should be removed from the ‘no net loss’ calculation ever since it was first published by HS2 Ltd in its 2013 Environmental Statement, submitting evidence to support this stance on several occasions. In February this year, the HS2 Commons Select Committee agreed with the Trust that the calculation should be reviewed and gave Natural England the task of doing so.

In the report, Natural England confirmed that ancient woodland and SSSIs should be removed from HS2 Ltd calculations that attempt to prove the scheme will achieve ‘no net loss of biodiversity’.

Ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600. The unique undisturbed soils and ecosystems found in these sites form the UK’s richest land habitat, home to a host of rare, protected and threatened wildlife. It now accounts for just 2% of the UK’s land area (3% in England).

Stephen Trotter, Director for The Wildlife Trusts in England said: “It is great that Natural England has rightly recognised the importance of protecting these precious places. But it is unacceptable that HS2 Ltd has ignored this advice and is downplaying the importance of ancient woodlands and other irreplaceable places for wildlife. If these unique places absolutely cannot be avoided by HS2 then it is essential that a much greater expanse of new woodland is created. From the outset the environmental impacts of HS2 have not been properly taken into account and now the additional funds being allocated by HS2 Ltd for compensation are wholly inadequate.”

However, The Wildlife Trusts said they were “extremely disappointed by the Government’s response to the report. The failure to agree to implement the recommendations in full reveals a lack of ambition to make HS2 a truly world class and innovative railway that provides wider benefits for people and the environment.”

Stephen Trotter added: “The Government is currently preparing its 25 Year Plan for the Environment which will set out its vision to leave the natural environment in a better state for future generations. The way HS2 is developed will be the acid test of the Government’s intentions.”

Rather than take on board the suggestions in the report, the DfT’s response was to reject the proposals on ancient woodland as ‘stimulus for debate’, and then claimed that the DfT and HS2 Ltd had an ambition to “that ours will be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state that we found it”.

And yet HS2 is getting its advice from people who will make money from building HS2, with even their interim CEO is also a director of an engineering firm.  Far from acting as if they are building a flagship project with the highest environmental standards, HS2 Ltd are acting more like cowboy builders trying to hide what they are doing.

Meanwhile both the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts still have some serious questions waiting for response.

Wildlife Trusts call on Government to ensure that:

  • HS2 Ltd should use and apply the Government methodology developed by Defra for calculating impact, instead of creating its own
  • There is no net loss of wildlife as a result of Phase 1 of HS2 – Government must ensure that environmental measures are fully funded as a relatively small but critical proportion of the cost of HS2
  • All losses of ancient woodland losses are fully compensated at a 30:1 ratio (for every acre lost, 30 are created) – this should not be open to debate or further dilution
  • Phase 2 of HS2 is developed with the aim of achieving an overall wildlife gain.
  • Provision must be made to address any further impacts on wildlife that emerge during the construction of the railway – along with the original shortfall.

And the Woodland Trust are waiting for answers on the following points:

  • There is no evidence for the effectiveness of translocation (2) of ancient woodland soils and yet HS2 Ltd continues to push this as better than new planting, using it as a reason to reduce the area of compensation proposed.
  • Compensation planting ratios in relation to habitat loss (including ancient woodland) proposed by HS2 Ltd are at most 4.8:1 hectares. The Trust requested a ratio of at least 30:1ha for ancient woodland.
  • The environment must be fully assessed before designs are put forward. The identification of valuable habitats late in the planning process results in amendments to the scheme being seen as difficult and too expensive. Loss of habitat is then accepted as inevitable and unavoidable.
  • HS2 Ltd has made no commitment to buffer ancient woodland with new planting or to provide mitigation to reduce the indirect effects (noise, vibration, lighting, etc) of the route.
  • HS2 Ltd has unnecessarily constrained the area available for compensation planting by only looking at areas that fall within the area of the scheme’s proposed plans. The Trust demonstrated in its evidence to the Commons Select Committee that there are a variety of voluntary schemes available that would enable HS2 Ltd to identify land outside its current plans to deliver better results for habitat protection and biodiversity.
  • Some changes to the route only serve to move destruction from one extremely important habitat to another. Eg. There’s a potential increase in ancient woodland loss at Pinnocks Wood, in Herefordshire due to a haul route being moved from a SSSI.

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