MPs warn on HS2 environmental impacts

Published on Monday, 07 April 2014 11:25
Written by Govtoday staff

Better safeguards need to be implemented if harmful environmental impacts of HS2 are to be minimised, the environmental audit committee has warned in its report, HS2 and the environment.

Parliament, in its capacity as the planning authority for HS2, should ensure that everything possible is done to minimise damage to ancient woodlands and SSSIs and that where loss is genuinely unavoidable, that compensation is applied to the fullest extent possible.

Chair of the committee, Joan Walley MP, said: "The government needs to show real commitment to dealing with the impact that HS2 will have on our countryside and wildlife. Ancient woodlands and other hard to replace sites of natural value should not be subordinated to crude economic calculations of cost and benefit.

"It is imperative that an infrastructure project on such a large scale implements proper environmental safeguards and ensures that impacts are minimised. This means adopting stringent, enforceable standards and setting aside adequate funding.

"That won't happen if HS2 Ltd can avoid implementing safeguards if they consider them to be 'impracticable' or 'unreasonable'. There needs to be a separate ring-fenced budget for these safeguards and for compensation, separate from the rest of the HS2 budget, to prevent the environment being squeezed if HS2 costs grow."

Given the scale of the HS2 scheme, the aim of 'no net biodiversity loss' is a challenging one. However, the government should seek out opportunities to do more: as it refines the processes guiding biodiversity offsetting, it should identify possibilities to produce biodiversity gains and add to local communities' well-being This would be consistent with the government's goal of improving England's natural environment, set out in its Natural Environment White Paper.

For any biodiversity assessment, a sound data baseline is indispensable. HS2 Ltd stated that 60% of the proposed route had so far been surveyed. Further data gathering, particularly on protected species not included in the current Environmental Statement, should be carried out as soon as possible.

Joan Walley MP added: "The government's aim of 'no net biodiversity loss' on HS2 is not good enough - it should aim for environmental gains that the government promised in its white paper on the natural environment. In any case, the government can't demonstrate it will cause no net harm because it has still not surveyed 40% of the land to be used.

"Ancient woodland should be treated with particular care. HS2 will damage some woodlands, and where that happens, compensation measures should be much higher than the level indicated in the calculation that HS2 Ltd will use. That metric needs to be looked at again."

The HS2 hybrid bill will be given its second reading on 28 April, after which it will be referred to a dedicated select committee to examine 'petitions' against it. The committee criticise the procedure's failure to fully address the requirements of EU and national directives on environmental assessments, which it wants to be at least partly rectified in the forthcoming Parliamentary proceedings.

Walley said: "So far the consultation process on HS2 has not fully addressed the many environmental concerns we have. It is imperative that parliament itself now takes on that role. Our report will inform the second reading debate on 28th April. But looking beyond that, we will make sure that the remit of the committee examining petitions against HS2's environmental damage will allow such damage to be properly scrutinised."

Because of its biodiversity value, loss of ancient woodland has permanent adverse effect on the natural environment. While compensation measures are necessary, and should be increased further than is currently planned, compensatory measures for ancient woodland should not count in the calculation of overall 'no net biodiversity loss'.

Damage to ancient woodland, an irreplaceable resource, also raises the questions of proper application of the environmental 'mitigation hierarchy': compensation measures should only be implemented as a last resort, if adverse effects cannot be avoided or mitigated. The committee calls upon parliament to ensure that the mitigation hierarchy will be followed fully.

The HS2 environmental statement, and its associated documents and plans, do provide a degree of environmental protection by adopting minimum requirements and standards. But these commitments are weakened by clauses stating that any adjustments made by HS2 have to be 'reasonable' and 'practicable'. Lack of a ring-fenced budget for environmental protection fuels fears of cutting corners if the overall budget needs to be brought down.

Source: Environmental Audit Committee

Add comment