HS2 Bill Committee final report

The Lords’ HS2 Bill Select Committee has published its final report, which is dismissive of the ecological evidence presented to it, both by us, and in an independent report by Natural England, the government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation issues.

Why such an unsympathetic Committee?

The Lords’ HS2 Committee’s Report notes the Trust “is a large and well-respected body,” but goes on to say it was “surprised and disappointed by the negativity of its evidence.” Like the wide range of many other petitioners, we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t have an adverse issue view of HS2 - in our case solely with regard to the impact of Phase 1 on ancient woodland.

I have noted that several of the Committee members have a transport background, but few seemed to have any environmental background and this does not seem to reflect the balance of the House of Lords, who have several environmental champions and experts. The Committee was formed to listen to and impartially consider evidence from all petitioners, but the Committee’s support for HS2 Ltd is evident at the launch of the report.

Worryingly, at the start of the evidence session at which I presented, the Chair of the Committee said (at 10:01:26): “… Natural England, I think, took far longer than expected to produce their independent report…” However, we understood Natural England submitted its report at the end of July, as planned, but publication by the Dept for Transport was delayed until 9 November (coincidentally the day the world learned of Donald Trump’s successful election) when they and HS2 Ltd also published their responses to the report.

Natural England’s suggested “compensation” for loss of ancient woodland

In its report on the HS2 no net loss (NNL) calculation, Natural England recommends that, whilst “ancient woodland is considered to be an irreplaceable habitat and hence it is excluded from the Defra offsetting metric”, nevertheless “some compensation factor is needed” in the case where “loss of ancient woodland is unavoidable”. NE also pointed out that the NNL metrics put forward by HS2 Ltd could suggest a ratio as high as 60:1. NE’s rationale for 30:1 considered that “a commitment to such a ratio would be a clear statement by HS2 Ltd that it recognises the critical importance of ancient woodland”.

Neither the Woodland Trust nor Natural England has “plucked this figure out of the air” as the Lords suggested. When challenged by the QC for HS2 Ltd on why the Trust supported this figure of 30:1, I explained the logic: Defra metrics allow a ratio of up to 24:1 for replacement planting for the destruction of replaceable habitat. So for an irreplaceable habitat one should add a precautionary principle, especially in this case considering the time taken for new woodland to establish.

The Committee Report goes on to say,

”There is no doubt a lot to be learned from experience on this project that can be used to improve the metric, and perhaps have the more ambitious aim of some net gain on future phases of HS2.”

Whilst this last phrase is superficially optimistic, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding of an important point, which I hope the government picks up when reading it: Loss of ancient woodland always means net loss of biodiversity; so, if you want net gain, don’t destroy any ancient woodland...

I, and the Trust, stand by my description of the proposals for compensation for loss of irreplaceable ancient woodland in Phase 1 of HS2 as “woefully inadequate”, both in terms of quantity and quality. However, I’m actually more disappointed that the Committee, and Dept for Transport, have so casually dismissed the evidence from Natural England.

Failure to identify ancient woodland, and avoid it in route selection

The Trust was at pains to restate in our evidence that we are not against the principle of high speed rail and sustainable transport. But failing to identify ancient woodland and then attempting to claim credit for others’ work, does - once again - merit the adjective “woeful”.

All through this period, the Trust has highlighted HS2 Ltd’s failure to identify ancient woodlands along the route which are smaller than the 2ha threshold to be recorded on the Ancient Woodland Inventory – this sorry tale is superbly summarised by a supporter. Hence these woods were not taken into account when the route was selected. HS2 Ltd attempted to take credit for finding the additional woodlands, when in fact their failings had actually delayed the process.

We believe HS2 Ltd’s approach runs contrary to the government’s ambition to deliver infrastructure in an environmentally sensitive way, and if continued in subsequent phases will thwart another ambition - to be the first government to leave the environment in a better state than when it started.

What next?

The Lords will be debate the report in their chamber, and hopefully other Lords will register their dissatisfaction with the proposals. After this it is up to the government to make sure HS2 is constructed in a manner consistent with government’s manifesto commitments and ambitions.

We are disappointed by this experience and by the Committee’s dismissal of expert evidence, including that of Natural England. But we are undeterred and will carry on with our scrutiny of the next phases of HS2, and other infrastructure projects as they emerge. Thanks again for all your support so far, your comments on my last blog were very encouraging, but please note we will not be able to acknowledge further comments until the New Year.