Why HS2 still need to stop and rethink plans

Whilst much of the country is in lockdown, construction and planning work for HS2 continues to forge ahead largely unseen, putting at risk ancient woodland, meadows and other important habitats.

In our blog series about our campaign to stop and rethink HS2, we explain some of the more technical aspects of our work, which continues from the homes of our planning and biodiversity officers. Rachel Hackett, The Wildlife Trusts' Living Landscape Manager, shares more about her role here.

Our petition and ‘biodiversity net gain’

The Wildlife Trusts have been responding to plans for HS2 at all levels since they were first announced in 2010. One of the more formal routes of our work - that you are unlikely to hear much about - is through the HS2 Bill Select Committees. We were due to give evidence in person before the Committee last month, which was postponed due to the current health crisis. 

These committees are held in the House of Commons and House of Lords during the passage of the Hybrid Bill for each phase of HS2. It is these Hybrid Bills, passed by Parliament, that grant (amongst other things) the powers to construct the various phases of the HS2 network. The select committees provide an opportunity for people and organisations affected by the construction or other elements of the Bill to petition for or against specific items in it - known as provisions - and to seek alterations. 

We were due to give evidence in person before the Committee last month, but this has been postponed due to the current health crisis. 

These petitions are submitted as a document, outlining how the scheme affects the person, group or organisation and how they believe the Bill should be altered to meet their objections. 

The Wildlife Trusts formally submitted its latest petition to the House of Lords Select Committee for the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crewe) Bill in June 2019 to share our concerns for the West Midlands to Crewe section of HS2, part of Phase 2, which will cut through the counties of Staffordshire and Cheshire. At the committee, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust would have provided detailed, local evidence of the risks the plans pose to local sites.  

While we await a new date, there are several aspects to our petition on biodiversity net gain that we would like to share with you to keep you up to speed and explain where we've got to. Our evidence set out the justification for net gain to be included as a requirement for HS2. Net gain is a term used to describe an approach to development that leaves the natural environment in a measurably better state than it was beforehand.

We are concerned that ground clearance work for Phase 1 (London to West Midlands) continues, despite a recent attempt through the High Court to halt activity during spring. Plans for Phase 2 (West Midlands to Manchester and Leeds) are still under scrutiny. 

What the Government expects of HS2

The main focus of our petition was on ‘biodiversity net gain’ (a term describing an approach to development that leaves the natural environment in a measurably better state than it was beforehand). Our evidence set out the justification for net gain to be included as a requirement for HS2.   

It’s fair to say that when plans for HS2 were first announced, the Government’s position and policy with regards to biodiversity were different from those of today. In terms of planning, the focus at that point was very much on halting the loss of wildlife and wild places. But we have moved on substantially since 2009. 

We have seen Government set out legal provisions within the draft Westminster Environment Bill, for a minimum of 10% biodiversity net gain to become a condition of locally determined development. This means local development not only has to guard against wildlife loss but contribute to its recovery. A good step forward, but major infrastructure schemes like HS2 are not included, despite the huge impact they have. This doesn’t feel right – so The Wildlife Trusts are calling on the Select Committee to meet the Government’s ambitions for infrastructure and biodiversity net gain in the current Hybrid Bill for HS2. 

Local development not only has to guard against wildlife loss but contribute to its recovery.

Just before this, the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (published in 2018) underpinned its ambitions for nature’s recovery, which has become the focus today. In this, the Government makes very clear commitments to; “develop a Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife” and to “connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife.” 

The 25 Year Plan also commits the Government to; “embed an environmental net gain principle for development, including housing and infrastructure” and to make sure that “existing requirements for net gain for biodiversity in national planning policy are strengthened.” 

In between these two key moments, requirements for net gain within planning policy were strengthened in 2018. First that net gain should always apply to locally agreed development and that any gain should be measurable, so that it can be proven to be genuine.    

hs2

But what does this actually mean?

Well, if the Government is serious about securing nature’s recovery we would expect all major infrastructure, regardless of the route by which the development is permitted, to align with these commitments.  We have always believed there is a real opportunity for HS2 Ltd to lead the way and be a real exemplar in this regard. 

This is why The Wildlife Trusts are petitioning for HS2 Ltd to step up and meet these standards for this new rail network and achieve the ambitions set by their own Government. 

What is HS2 Ltd's current approach to the scheme?

HS2 Ltd says that “given the scale of the scheme, and a series of sometimes conflicting environmental constraints, there are locations where impacts on ecological effects cannot be reasonably avoided. In such circumstances, measures to mitigate (i.e. reduce) the impacts of the scheme have been incorporated. Where avoidance and mitigation measures are not sufficient to address the effects of the scheme, then compensation (in the form of habitat creation) or the enhancement of retained habitat is proposed”.  

A metric allows the losses and gains in biodiversity to be directly compared and provides a means of quantifying progress towards the goal of seeking to achieve no net loss in biodiversity (‘no net loss calculation’). 

HS2 Ltd maintains that the project is consistent with a ‘no net loss’ approach – suggesting that nature will not lose out as a result of the scheme. This commitment is unambitious against a context of changing policy requirements for development to improve nature’s lot. But, it’s also untrue, as HS2 Ltd has shown to be failing on its own commitment. Our report ‘What’s the damage? Why HS2 will cost nature too much’ concluded that the proposed scheme will be unacceptably devastating to the natural environment. Without changes, the plans place too many protected sites and the species that depend on them at risk of significant harm.  

HS2 Ltd also frequently fails to propose adequate and appropriate mitigation and compensation for the impacts on these wild places (more about this in our next blog).  

Towards a Wilder Britain: HS2 could help achieve net gain

In 2014, our ‘Greener Vision for HS2’ set out the requirements to ensure large-scale nature restoration along the proposed line. Our proposals for creating and restoring large areas of habitat and providing new access to nature for people helped to shape the ‘green corridor’ that now exists across the route. Regrettably, this doesn’t go as far as we had proposed and this is why we continue to challenge how HS2 is being built.  

Our research showed then that environmental restoration along the line – of the scale required – could be achieved, and would cost much less than 1% of the (then) overall £42.6 billion budget.  Six years on, we’d expect the percentage of overall costs to be much lower, given the rising cost projections today of £106 billion.   

We’ve since published Towards a Wilder Britain which sets out the need for nature’s recovery and shows how a Nature Recovery Network can be established - mapping out important places for wildlife which need to be protected, as well as key areas where habitat should be restored. This is the only way to make nature’s recovery a reality. 

Both documents are relevant because they demonstrate how HS2 Ltd could be much more effective at properly mitigating the effects of the infrastructure project and achieving biodiversity net gain.  

We also want to see HS2 Ltd: 

  • target habitat creation more strategically, in a way that creates more, bigger, better and joined up sites for nature;  

  • give more consideration to opportunities for restoring and enhancing existing habitats;  

  • be more proactive in inviting and approaching willing landowners to enter agreements for habitat creation, restoration or enhancement of appropriate habitats on their land. And in doing all this, look at opportunities beyond the boundary of the scheme.  

Convincing the Select Committee will have to wait, but meanwhile...

We continue to support other conservation groups that are asking for a rethink to the plans, including the naturalist and author Chris Packham. The 14 Wildlife Trusts directly impacted by the scheme are still working on HS2, including checking sites for unnecessary damage and reporting back on tactics to clear sites near them.  Works to remove ancient woodland soils in an attempt to ‘translocate’ the habitat are due to begin any day.  

In our next blog, we will explain our concerns about what this will mean in one of the woods at risk.  

Willow tit

©Harry Hogg

HS2

Ecosystems permanently damaged. Irreplaceable habitats destroyed. Taxpayer's money spent on restoration wasted. Wildlife extinctions at a local level. This could be nature’s fate if the current plans for HS2 continue. 

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