The Government’s response to an Environmental Audit Committee report on HS2 and the environment, rejects the Committee’s call for a more ambitious objective than ‘no net biodiversity loss’. The response also discounts the Committee’s call to provide greater ‘environmental compensation’ (or off-setting) for ancient woodlands destroyed by the rail line.
Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said:
“Opinion is divided on the merits or otherwise of HS2. But everyone should be united in wanting the environmental impacts of the railway to be avoided or minimised as much as possible. It is disappointing that the Government will settle for no overall biodiversity loss, when it could use the enormous budget for the scheme to provide more gains than losses for the environment. That is a wasted opportunity. If ancient woodlands and other critical habitats will be lost, they should at least be much more fully compensated for than currently planned by the Government’s off-setting system.”
The environmental aim of HS2: no net biodiversity loss
In its response to the Committee’s April report, the Government states that its ambition in seeking ‘no net biodiversity loss’ is "appropriate". This is despite the Government’s commitment in its 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (PDF 337.70 MB) for this to be “the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state that it inherited". In calculating how much new woodland to provide, to replace damaged ancient woodland, it will give the highest possible score for the ancient woodland’s ‘distinctiveness’, but not for its ‘condition’ or ‘connectedness’. Lower scores for these attributes will lower the amount of new woodland required, despite ancient woodlands being universally regarded as irreplaceable.
The response also largely rejects the Committees recommendations on allowing compensatory habitats away from the route which might provide better results in well-being terms. It rejects our call for a ring-fence for a budget for environmental protection measures. It also implies that there is no likelihood of reducing the maximum speed of the trains — to minimise the project’s carbon emissions —until the electricity supply is de-carbonised.
Monitoring and management
More positively, following one of the Committee’s recommendations, the Government says that it recognises the benefit of having an independent body to monitor the creation of off-set habitats and whether there is any overall biodiversity loss, and will “consider further” the options for Natural England or local authorities having such a role.
House of Common’s HS2 Select Committee
The House of Common’s HS2 Select Committee, set up on 29 April, is now examining the petitions from those affected by the project. Following its report, the Environmental Audit Committee wrote to the chair ( PDF 734 KB) of that new select committee, drawing its attention to Government commitments that the HS2 select committee would be able to examine and report on environmental mitigation measures.