HS2 and the environment - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

2  The environmental aim of HS2: no net biodiversity loss

The aim

9. HS2 Ltd's Environmental Statement declares that "Overall, … the project is seeking to achieve no net loss in biodiversity at the route-wide level".[10] This reflects the National Planning Policy Framework, which states that

    If significant harm to biodiversity resulting from a development proposal cannot be avoided, adequately mitigated, or, as a last resort, compensated for, then planning permission should be refused.[11]

Defra told us that such a 'no net loss' objective would be challenging:

    There is no other international infrastructure project this large that … [goes] further, so to achieve 'no net loss' is in itself challenging. Whether they can go beyond, and achieve net gain, is something we will have to wait and see, but that would be above any other international standard.[12]

10. However, that is the aim set out in the Government's 2011 Natural Environment White Paper, which stated:

    The Government wants this to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited. ... It requires us all to put the value of nature at the heart of our decision-making—in Government, local communities and businesses. In this way we will improve the quality and increase the value of the natural environment across England.[13]

Our witnesses also believed the goal should be higher. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) thought that "there is not much ambition in [no net loss]".[14] Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) told the Committee:

    The Environmental Statement seems to be about trying to minimise environmental harm rather than seek any environmental opportunities. There is a massive lost opportunity there ... HS2 should be part of a bigger strategy to try to maximise use of brownfield land and reduce land-take by car parking and roads, but unfortunately it is not being planned in a joined-up fashion.[15]

11. Whether an aim of 'no net loss' or 'net gain', we were told that it should not be calculated only at route-level. The Woodland Trust believed that:

    … there is a natural justice in that if something is lost to a local community they should have the benefit provided, or a compensation provided, at that stage as well.[16]

The CPRE shared that view.[17] Camden Council wanted any compensation measures to be tailored to local conditions and to ensure that residents' enjoyment of green spaces was not diminished.[18]

12. On HS2 the Government should aim higher than simply striving for no net biodiversity loss. As it further develops its processes and metrics for biodiversity offsetting (paragraph 23), it should seek to weight these to be more likely to produce biodiversity gains and take explicit account of local communities' well-being (paragraph 44).

Applying the mitigation hierarchy

13. The HS2 Environmental Statement reflects the 'mitigation hierarchy' previously set out in Defra's Natural Environment White Paper: environmental impacts should be avoided in the first instance, mitigated if impossible to avoid, and compensated for as a last resort.[19] At each successive step down the hierarchy, the degree of environmental protection is diminished. The Environmental Statement states that HS2 Ltd had attempted to minimise identified adverse environmental impacts through route design. Where, despite mitigation, adverse effects were predicted to occur, it "proposed repair and compensation measures".[20] In a similar vein, the Department of Transport told us that "the approach taken to mitigation was to address the likely significant effects of the scheme wherever reasonably practicable."[21] Specifically, they said:

    HS2 has sought to avoid impacts on sites designated under the Habitats Regulations. No internationally important sites will be significantly affected by Phase One. Only two nationally important Sites of Special Scientific Interest will be directly affected by the railway. Where Local Wildlife Sites are affected, compensatory habitat creation will be provided to ensure no permanent significant effects remain on the ecological network at a regional or route-wide level. The exception to this is for irreplaceable ancient woodland, where compensation measures have been included to substantially reduce the effects.[22]

Some of our witnesses were not convinced. CPRE complained that HS2 Ltd had not provided information on where costs had been the determining factor in not adhering to the principles of the hierarchy.[23] The Minister told us that there would be "no Natura 2000 sites affected, … two SSSIs affected, … 41 habitats of principal importance directly affected, and 19 ancient woodlands [covering] 32 hectares".[24] The Woodland Trust told us that the destruction of ancient woodlands raised questions about the application of the mitigation hierarchy, illustrated it argued by a lack of explanation about why a Chilterns Tunnel ("that would save one third of the ancient woodland threatened along the route") would not be taken forward.[25] Environment Bank, similarly, said it was necessary to use tunnels rather than cuttings to minimise damage to ancient woodlands.[26]

14. HS2's commitment to a high train operating speed provides a wider-scale test of the application of the mitigation hierarchy. Some of our witnesses considered that a slower speed scheme would allow the route to curve more and miss particular environmentally sensitive features.[27] Greengauge 21 noted, though, that "a wiggly line is basically longer", needing more construction and consequently producing environmental disruption over a longer distance.[28] HS2 Ltd told us that lower speed would allow greater "lateral curvature" of the route, "but you would not change it to any great extent or to the extent where you could perhaps skirt around an individual woodland".[29] They told us, furthermore, that reducing maximum train speed from 360kph to 300kph would result in a 25% reduction in the benefit:cost ratio.[30] But this, it appears to us, simply reflects the fact that the economic case for HS2—which is largely based on calculations of journey time savings—does not take most environmental impacts into consideration (the exception being costs attributable to landscape effects).[31]

15. The task of presenting a credible case that the mitigation hierarchy has been followed has been made unnecessarily more difficult by HS2 Ltd's apparent confusion and inconsistency over terminology. Witnesses told us that throughout the Environmental Statement, 'mitigation' and 'compensation' measures had been used interchangeably. The Woodland Trust told us that individual Community Forum reports had blurred the lines between these, and that what was classified as a mitigation or a compensation measure had differed between Forums.[32] The Wildlife Trusts, similarly, highlighted such terms being "used interchangeably, … combined and overlapped, … [and] double-counted".[33] RSPB told us that "the Environmental Statement wrongly extends the definition of mitigation to include compensation", so that "habitats to be created to compensate for unavoidable damage to protected [SSSIs] are wrongly identified as mitigation and on that basis … [the Environmental Statement] suggests that there are no residual adverse effects".[34]

16. Some witnesses saw such imprecision as an attempt to reduce the pressure to avoid or mitigate environmental damage. RSPB believed that "the mitigation hierarchy has been misapplied in the Environmental Statement to gloss over residual impacts on SSSIs and protected species, notably bats".[35] The Woodland Trust also had similar concerns about the treatment of ancient woodland in the Environmental Statement, which did not reflect the fact that such woodland is "irreplaceable, and as such any loss cannot be mitigated, only compensated for."[36]

17. Buckinghamshire County Council questioned the scientific evidence behind mitigation measures aimed at protecting Bechstein's bats.[37] HS2 Ecology Technical Group (an independent expert advisory group) and RSPB told us that the success of proposed measures was uncertain.[38] And the Woodland Trust were concerned about the "relatively new and unproven" proposal of relocating soils from affected ancient woodland, noting that the use of this approach on HS1 had apparently not been monitored. [39]

18. The 'mitigation hierarchy' lies at the heart of the Government's approach to environmental sustainability. At each successive step down the hierarchy, the degree of environmental protection is diminished. The hierarchy should be followed in developing HS2, but the Government has significant work to do to demonstrate that this approach is being applied, given the environmental damage current plans envisage to ancient woodlands, SSSIs and local wildlife sites, and the possible significant harm for particular species affected.

19. The HS2 Environmental Statement must be revised to distinguish clearly between 'mitigation' and 'compensation' measures in respect of biodiversity, and to explain the factors determining in which cases these should be applied. If biodiversity loss is genuinely unavoidable and also cannot be mitigated, compensation measures should be applied to the fullest extent possible.

Assessment baselines

20. Any assessment of whether HS2 will be able to meet its objective of no net biodiversity loss depends on establishing a clear baseline of the state of habitats and biodiversity before the project commences. At the very least the Government must catalogue the biodiversity present. As the work envisaged by the Natural Capital Committee unfolds such assessments might in time also be able to take account of what it called 'unsustainable use' of aspects of natural capital.[40] HS2 Ltd told us that because there is no obligation for landlords to grant access to their land, they have surveyed only 60% of the land covered by the Hybrid Bill.[41] They have augmented their own surveys with widely available existing data and aerial photography.[42] Unsurprisingly, this has led to criticisms that HS2 Ltd's baseline data is inadequate. The Woodland Trust told us that it had found that "more than half of the woodlands have not been surveyed".[43] The HS2 Ecology Technical Group had found that "a true representation of known and potential biodiversity has not been illustrated on the Environmental Statement maps [which] leads to a serious misrepresentation of the potential impacts of the Proposed Scheme".[44] As a result, the Environmental Statement had not considered some European protected species,[45] nor local wildlife sites which also often "support habitats of principal importance".[46]

21. HS2 Ltd told us that further surveys would be carried out, particularly on protected species.[47] The Department of Transport explained that any significant changes arising from such survey work would require further consultation:

    If the survey data identified a new significant environmental effect that is not in the Environmental Statement we would have to deposit what is called Supplementary Environmental Information. That would be subject to the minimum of 42 days' public consultation. The consultation responses would then be summarised by a technical assessor appointed by Parliament, so the whole process would ensure that that information is fully aware to Parliament when it is making its decision about this project.[48]

    If the Bill is given Royal Assent and it becomes an Act, the way that the Bill is constructed and the way that the Environmental Minimum Requirements and commitments that the Secretary of State gives to the House effectively means that the railway needs to be built within the scope of the Environmental Statement, or it does not have planning permission, or further consent has to be sought. If there is an additional environmental effect that is not identified until after Royal Assent, the nominated undertaker—the organisation building the railway—would be required to get planning permission via the local authority, so there is always a check and a balance.[49]

22. 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. It should focus particularly on cataloguing all ancient woodland and protected animal species, and as much as possible of the 40% of the route yet to be examined by involving local wildlife groups where possible. We discuss below how, as the surveying continues, it should take on board the work of the Natural Capital Committee (paragraphs 39, 43) and well-being considerations (paragraph 44).

10   HS2 Ltd, Environmental Statement, Volume 1: Introduction to the Environmental Statement, Para 9.8.6  Back

11   Defra, Biodiversity Offsetting in England Green Paper (September 2013), p24; Defra, Making Space for Nature (September 2010), p87 Back

12   Q142 Back

13   Defra, The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, Cm 8082 (June 2011), para 2 Back

14   Q29 (Mr Robinson] Back

15   Q29 [Mr Smyth] Back

16   Q31 [Mr Barnes] Back

17   Q31 [Mr Smyth] Back

18   London Borough of Camden (HS2 035), para 6 Back

19   Defra, Biodiversity Offsetting in England Green Paper (September 2013), p24; Defra, Making Space for Nature (September 2010), p87 Back

20   Department for Transport/HS2 Ltd, Non-Technical Summary of the HS2 Phase 1Environmental Statement, November 2013, p4 Back

21   Department for Transport (HS2 028), para 4.3 Back

22   Department for Transport (HS2 028), para 2.18 Back

23   Q43 Back

24   Q122 Back

25   Q43 Back

26   The Environment Bank (HS2 023), para 17 Back

27   Q1 Back

28   Q12 Back

29   Q120 Back

30   Q121 Back

31   Department for Transport, The Economic Case for HS2: Value for Money Statement (January 2012), paras 6.12, 6.16 Back

32   Q44  Back

33   Wildlife Trusts (HS2 049), para 25 Back

34   RSPB (HS2 025), para 6 Back

35   ibid, para 17  Back

36   The Woodland Trust (HS2 021), para 2.4.  Back

37   Buckinghamshire County Council (HS2 024), para 5.5.1. Back

38   HS2 Ecology Technical Group (HS2 027), para 10.4; RSPB (HS2 025),para 7 Back

39   The Woodland Trust (HS2 021), para 1.6; Q49 Back

40   Natural Capital Committee , The state of natural capital: Restoring our natural assets (March 2014), para 2.12 Back

41   Q147 Back

42   Qq147,148 and 151 Back

43   Q33 Back

44   HS2 Ecology Technical Group (HS2 037), para 11.3 Back

45   ibid, para 11.6 Back

46   ibid, para 11.8 Back

47   Q148 Back

48   Q149 (see also Q114) Back

49   Qq150-151 Back

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Prepared 7 April 2014