HS2: a dark day for wildlife as the green light is given

Months of uncertainty mixed with hopeful optimism ended this week with the Government’s announcement that HS2 will go ahead.

The announcement last summer of a review of the HS2 scheme was to some, a bit of a surprise; the project had seemed such an unstoppable force for so long. Could it be that finally, the Government would take a good hard look at the scheme? A genuine assessment of the reality to date against the scheme’s original promise was long overdue. Surely anyone who took a thorough look at the benefits and the risks would make sensible conclusions about what could be done differently?  There was still time to rethink, after all.

It would be months before there was an answer.

The ‘independent’ review was to be led by a former HS2 chairman, Douglas Oakervee. Hopeful optimism remained though, because of the increased attention the risks to nature had started to receive. In the decade and more since HS2 was first mooted conservation groups have raised concerns about the impacts the scheme poses to legally protected and designated natural heritage sites, and the risks to species already struggling to cope with broken habitats and climate change.  During the same window of time, we have seen Government pledge its commitment for development to deliver biodiversity gains - a positive move beyond ensuring no loss.

This outcome is hugely disappointing, but we won’t stop speaking up for wildlife at risk or holding HS2 Ltd to account.

In December, a report collated by The Wildlife Trusts set out the possible impacts, across the whole route, if the plans were to continue for the first time in one place. Alongside it, a letter drawing the report to the Prime Minister’s attention was signed by over 66,000 people and handed in to Downing Street. This surely could not be ignored!

It is unclear when the Oakervee review period came to an end, but in January the final report was leaked, suggesting that HS2 be given the go-ahead. Unexpectedly the co-author, Lord Berkeley, slammed the review as being ‘dishonest’ and demanded his name be removed, announcing he would be writing his own report, which was published in January 2020. The final Oakervee report was eventually released on the same day as the Government’s long-awaited decision.  

The announcement, when it came, was perfunctory: a “green signal” for HS2. No mention at all of the natural places and wildlife it will risk having a devastating impact upon, as our report, "What's the damage? Why HS2 will cost nature too much" sets out so clearly, or even of how HS2 will mitigate for the damage and deliver more for nature, as promised in the 25 Year Plan for the Environment.  When challenged about this in the chamber, the Prime Minister evoked the Conservative party commitment around tree planting.

It’s particularly disappointing to know that the government considers it proper to destroy so many places of importance for wildlife. But we couldn’t have made it clearer.  

What now?

This outcome is hugely disappointing, but we won’t stop speaking up for wildlife at risk or holding HS2 Ltd to account. Our message that the plans need a rethink is as relevant today as it was before HS2 got the ‘green light’ to go ahead. Our next step is to drive this message home to the new minister responsible for how HS2 is built.

We expect the Hybrid Bill for High Speed Rail (West Midlands to Crewe) to continue its journey through parliament imminently, so we are busy preparing to give evidence at the House of Lord’s Select Committee.

We still believe green and sustainable transport is both vital and possible – but it’s increasingly clear that this can’t be achieved under the current plans. It’s critical the Government acts now to prevent the scheme speeding even faster towards environmental disaster and pushing us deeper into the climate crisis.

We will therefore continue to press hard the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd over the coming months – working centrally and locally to scrutinise, challenge and influence the approach taken.

hs2 train

Ecosystems permanently damaged. Irreplaceable habitats destroyed.

HS2 - Learn more