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HS2: A radical new approach is urgently needed

Posted: Thursday 24th April 2014 by TheWildlifeTrustsBlogger

The HS2 line at Waddesdon (photo: Roger Marks under Creative Commons license)

Steve Trotter on the impact of HS2 on wildlife and The Wildlife Trusts' ideas for large-scale nature restoration along the HS2 proposed route

HS2 in my local patch

The proposed High Speed rail link from London to Birmingham (HS2) is back in the news again as on Monday April 28, parliament meets for the Second Reading of the HS2 Hybrid Bill. For groups like The Wildlife Trusts, who have deep concerns about the current proposals, and for local communities along the route, this is a troubling time.

I regularly walk in an ancient wood at South Cubbington (right) near where I live in Warwickshire. Last weekend the carpets of white wood anenomes were nearly over and giving way to the dazzling bluebell display. The chiffchaffs are back and the local village children have been playing peacefully in the woods in the warm Easter sunshine. South Cubbington is to be lost to HS2 - no tunnels just a deep and devastating cutting. Those children and the future generations that follow will pay a big price for this railway. But despite protests and serious questions over its environmental, social and economic impact[1] there are still no signs of the brakes being applied to what would be England’s biggest infrastructure project in modern times. If HS2 is going to happen then it really has to be done properly. A radical new approach is urgently needed - one that causes much less damage to the environment and has a much more ambitious vision for nature along the length of the line.

Impact of HS2 on wildlife and ecosystems

10 SSSIs

9 Wildlife Trust nature reserves

153 Local Wildlife Sites

42 proposed Local Wildlife Sites

43 ancient woods

- all directly impacted by HS2

The Wildlife Trusts have been assessing the impact of the HS2 Proposed Route on wildlife and local ecological networks, and we believe that the current proposals fall short when it comes to environmental protection and mitigation. The Government’s own recent Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report on HS2[2] generally agrees with our view ( read my recent blog on this ).

Our new analysis suggests that around 500 wildlife sites will be directly[3] or indirectly[4] affected by the Proposed Route (Phases 1 and 2). Ten Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs - the very best of our wild places), 153 Local Wildlife Sites and 42 proposed Local Wildlife Sites will all be directly impacted (including at least 41 ancient woodlands[5] and 9 Wildlife Trust nature reserves). We are concerned that the full impact of the route on wildlife has not yet been properly evaluated by HS2 Ltd and that there are big holes in the proposed mitigation. Consequently, we think MPs should be challenging the Government over its weak ambition. Politicians have a real opportunity to leave a unique and enduring legacy. The Government should act now to replace its weak ambition for ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity with a strong commitment for ‘net gain’ which is both possible and affordable. Our new report ‘ HS2: Ideas for large-scale nature restoration along the Proposed Route ’ provides the evidence for this (more on this below).

So whilst our opposition to the current plans for HS2 has not changed (and The Wildlife Trusts will be petitioning against the Bill) there is also an urgent need to try and influence the Bill’s Second Reading next Monday.

Second Reading of HS2 Hybrid Bill - and why it matters for wildlife

If the Bill passes the Second Reading next Monday (April 28) - i.e. parliament decides to give it the go-ahead - then the following day MPs will debate the instructions given to a specially-formed Select Committee on the Bill, and will agree the Terms of Reference for the Committee. This could or could not include scope for the Committee to consider environmental impact or examine mitigation. This is critical for two reasons:

1) The Select Committee will hear petitions against the Bill (from people and groups affected by HS2 including The Wildlife Trusts). On the basis of this, the Committee can amend the Bill – for better or for worse, but only within the scope of their Terms of Reference

2) The Terms of Reference for the Select Committee cannot be changed after they have been agreed on 29 April.

All clear so far? Good!

HS2 would be England’s biggest infrastructure project in modern times – so if it goes ahead, we think it should aim to be England’s biggest nature restoration project too. If it goes ahead, Government must take the opportunity to restore nature along and adjacent to the line on a grand scale, especially in lowland England - where nature restoration is so badly needed. But to get nature firmly on the HS2 agenda the current proposals need serious improvement.

What we're asking MPs to do

During the parliamentary debate on 28/29 April we are asking MPs to:

1) Press to avoid much more of the environmental impact of HS2

2) Ensure the Select Committee’s Terms of Reference include impact on the environment and mitigation

3) Champion a much more ambitious environmental vision for HS2, committing to a significant net gain for nature & access to nature for local communities.

These aren’t unreasonable demands. In fact all three are backed up by the recent Environmental Audit Committee report on ‘HS2 and the Environment’, which said:
On HS2, the Government should aim higher than simply striving for no net biodiversity loss ” and “ The Government has not been able to establish a full environmental baseline against which the aim of ‘no net biodiversity loss’ can be assessed. HS2 Ltd must carry out outstanding environmental surveys as soon as possible. ”[6] The Environmental Audit Committee report goes on to say “ It is vital that, when the HS2 Hybrid Bill is given its Second Reading and referred to the Select Committee to consider petitions, the House’s instructions to it: (ii) require it to consider and report on the environmental impacts of the project. ”[8]

HS2 - what you can do

1. Tweet your MP

@MPnamehere Much work needed on HS2 impact on wildlife. @wildlifetrusts ideas for large-scale nature restoration > http://wtru.st/HS2info

@MPnamehere If HS2 goes ahead govt must use the opportunity for massive nature & access restoration. Ideas > http://wtru.st/HS2info

@MPnamehere 1) Reduce environment impact 2) Select Committee ToR to include env impact 3) A net gain for nature & people's access to it #HS2 

Or be creative and make up your own.

2. Download and share our HS2 reports

HS2: A Greener Vision (summary report) - short link:  http://wtru.st/HS2report
HS2: The case for a Greener Vision (full length Reference report) short link: http://wtru.st/HS2reportFULL

There is also a tool you can use to email your MP asking them to Stop HS2 www.highspeedrail.org.uk (this is not a Wildlife Trust website)

Our new report: ‘A greener vision for HS2: Ideas for large-scale nature restoration along the Proposed Route’

To ensure that ambitions for a net gain for the environment cannot simply be brushed aside as too costly or unfeasible, Wildlife Trusts along the course of the route have been working on an alternative vision for environmental restoration running the full length of the HS2 line (Phases 1 & 2). Our objective is to put forward the environmental, social and economic case for the Government to properly address the impact of HS2 on wildlife, and be much more ambitious in striving for ‘net gain’ for wildlife rather than ‘no net loss’. These provisional ideas have been published today and you can read the reports  here (there is a summary and full version). The report is aimed at MPs and those involved in making decisions on HS2. 

Click to read and download the reports

To create our proposal we produced an indicative map showing where there are opportunities for habitat creation and natural regeneration within a 1km corridor either side of the proposed line. As well as identifying wildlife sites that needed saving we also looked to see where new woodlands, wetlands and grasslands could be created to buffer or connect existing habitats or provide ‘stepping stones’ for wildlife by establishing patches of new habitat between existing areas. This could help to ensure there is enough connected habitat for wildlife like the Bechstein's bat (see right) whose population in Bernwood Forest in Buckinghamshire will be impacted by the proposed route for HS2. 

This vision for nature along the route would create a ribbon of natural areas along the HS2 corridor, which would go some way towards replacing the natural heritage obliterated by the line and could improve people’s access to nature via an ambitious network of cycleways, footpaths and green bridges. Our current estimate is that our ideas – if implemented in their current guise - would create around 15,000 hectares of new habitat[9] and around 195km of new footpaths and cycleways. The exact detail of area and location of new habitat would be worked out in detail with local communities as part of the HS2 programme.

We commissioned researchers at Newcastle University to undertake a Cost Benefit Analysis to see how much our ideas would cost to implement. Based on our provisional costings the Analysis shows that our proposal would use less than 1% of the current HS2 budget[10] and that the benefits of new areas for wildlife and people would outweigh the costs. You can read the full Reference report here , including details on the Cost Benefit Analysis.

The report demonstrates why it is so important to persuade our MPs that they must ensure that the environmental damage that will result if HS2 goes ahead is properly assessed and that environmental impacts are firstly avoided where possible, and then fully mitigated in an ambitious plan for nature restoration.

There are a few important points to note about our report:

1) The implementation of any proposed habitat creation scheme, particularly on the scale we are proposing, would need detailed consultation with residents and partner organisations, after which it would need amending accordingly. Our aim at this stage is to put forward some ambitious but feasible ideas for an alternative vision for the environment along the HS2 route as a response to the weak environmental vision displayed by HS2 Ltd.

2) Environmental compensation should not come at the expense of other compensation payments for people living along the route – a separate transparent budget for environmental mitigation and compensation should be provided by HS2.

3) The habitat mapping is provisional and not undertaken to field level at this stage. Final mapping and proposal for habitat creation and regeneration would be done in consultation with landowners through HS2’s land purchase and rental processes.

Steve Trotter is The Wildlife Trusts' Director of England. 

References

[1] The overall case against HS2 has been made by many people and groups including the Institute for Economic Affairs and the RAC Foundation . The latter report was commissioned by the 51 councils against HS2 [ the 51m group ] and so reflects their views. There are also concerns over the Government’s refusal to publish its own Major Projects Authority (MPA) report on HS2 as reported in the Telegraph in January 2014 .

[2] Environmental Audit Committee (2014) HS2 and the Environment . Thirteenth Report of Session 2013-2014.

[3] Directly affected = sites within 100m of the route (<50m from the centreline)

[4] Indirectly affected = sites within a 1km boundary – 50m to 500m from the centreline – or under a tunnel.

[5]  http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/campaigning/campaigns/hs2-rail-link/

[6] Environmental Audit Committee (2014) HS2 and the Environment . Thirteenth Report of Session 2013-2014 Paragraph 12, page 8 and Paragraph 22, page 12.

[7] Environmental Audit Committee (2014) HS2 and the Environment . Thirteenth Report of Session 2013-2014 Paragraph 86, page 38

[8] HS2: The case for a greener vision (Reference report: Ideas for large-scale nature restoration along the Proposed Route). The Wildlife Trusts, 2014, p14

[9] HS2: The case for a greener vision (Reference report: Ideas for large-scale nature restoration along the Proposed Route). The Wildlife Trusts, 2014, p14

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