Our ongoing campaign to Stop and Rethink HS2

On the day that HS2 Ltd are due to take legal possession of a precious Wildlife Trust nature reserve, The Wildlife Trusts’ Rachel Hackett will present evidence to the HS2 Bill Select Committee as part of our ongoing campaign to stop and rethink HS2.

Tomorrow, Tuesday 28 July, HS2 Ltd are due to take legal possession of a large part of Calvert Jubilee nature reserve and begin clearance works. They will destroy an area of the eastern side of the reserve to make space for the High Speed 2 project railway. This precious, much-loved, nature reserve is cared for by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust – the charity has spent many years campaigning against HS2 and they, and their volunteers and members, are devastated by this development. 

The Wildlife Trusts have challenged High Speed 2 (HS2) ever since it was first proposed, on the grounds that it will cause huge damage to wildlife and wild places.   Fourteen Wildlife Trusts along the proposed HS2 route have campaigned against the project and in January this year The Wildlife Trusts published a report 'What’s the damage?  Why HS2 will cost nature too much’ which showed that HS2 will divide and destroy huge swathes of irreplaceable natural habitat and important protected wildlife sites up the length of England. The report outlined how nature will be badly damaged, wild places will be fragmented and endangered species will face local extinction.

One of the more formal routes of our work - that you are unlikely to hear much about - is through the HS2 Bill Select Committees. Tomorrow, we will be making a strong case to the committee that HS2 must give more back to nature than it takes away. We will be making this case for the sake of wildlife, people and local communities. 

I will be presenting evidence at a time when there is vastly increased awareness of the role healthy, restored, natural habitats play in regulating the climate and reducing the impact of the climate change. The Wildlife Trusts’ recent report, Let Nature Help, showed that nature’s recovery is crucial to tackling the climate crisis – that the twin nature and climate emergencies must be addressed together.

tree heart

Matthew Roberts

Despite this, there is still no commitment to ensure that HS2, one of the UK’s biggest infrastructure projects for decades, will help nature in the way that it so desperately needs. 

Quite the reverse, in fact: we found that in its current form HS2 will cause irreparable damage to irreplaceable habitats, including 108 ancient woodlands. It could significantly impact 693 Local Wildlife Sites, as well as 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 21 Local Nature Reserves 

 That’s why, tomorrow, I will be making the case to the Select Committee that HS2 should only be permitted to go further ahead if it will deliver a net gain for nature. 

Why can’t HS2 help nature by following the same rules as other development projects? 

In the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Government committed to “become the first generation to leave [the] environment in a better state than we found it.” This included a commitment to introduce the principle of net gain; that any new development should more than make up for its impact on nature. 

The Select Committee is examining the Bill that will put into law everything that HS2 Ltd must do for Phase 2(a) of the project (the section between Birmingham and Crewe.). We want the Bill to ensure HS2 Ltd delivers net gain for this phase – as a minimum. 

This is only part of the complex HS2 puzzle, but it’s an important one. It’s essential to continue to fight for everything that is needed to bring the best outcome for nature, and that includes biodiversity net gain.  

Through the upcoming Environment Bill private developers will have to abide by this rule, and ensure they build in a way which incorporates the local ecology and delivers a gain for local wildlife – and rightly so. But not, it seems, the Government and national infrastructure projects. Why not? When it comes to development, there must be a level playing field. All national infrastructure projects should deliver biodiversity net gain, as these projects usually have the greatest impact on wildlife.  

The National Infrastructure Commission’s own design principles state that national infrastructure should “seek to deliver a net biodiversity gain, contributing to the restoration of wildlife on a large scale while protecting irreplaceable natural assets and habitats.” Yet, this won’t apply to HS2, which will leave our wildlife in a much worse state. Why is this being allowed? 

barn owl in tree

© Russell Savory

HS2 Ltd has made half-hearted excuses about why they won’t deliver net gain - even though it will only be a fraction of the total project cost (which continues to expand, the project now seemingly unachievable within budget and timeframe). 

Biodiversity net gain would deliver huge returns all along the route for wildlife and people, putting public money to good use.  

Even while these points are being debated, the HS2 project continues rolling on regardless.   In its current form, it is on track to leave the natural world in a worse state than it was – in one of the most nature depleted countries on the planet. Yet, done right, it could lead the way.   

In the Prime Minister’s recent ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech, he declared that this Government would “build back better and build back greener”. What better way to start, than with the largest infrastructure project this country is currently undertaking? While many of us believe it’s not too late to stop and rethink the entire project – and save important wild places like Calvert Jubilee – surely the Government must recognise that it’s not too late to ensure HS2 delivers more space for nature and more wild places for people to enjoy? 

Rachel Hackett is The Wildlife Trusts’ Living Landscape Development Manager. 

28/07/2020 - HS2 have just informed us that the possession has been postponed. We will update our supporters when we hear more.