High Speed Rail Zooms Closer to Reality

balance (1)

Where is the economic, social and environmental balance?

I’m not normally one for blogging about political and developmental matters.  I prefer to write about what is in the eye-line of my binoculars rather than what is in the headlines of papers. However, the decisions made by politicians and developers have the potential to influence every millimetre of ground under our feet, even the places we happily assume are protected. What affects the land, affects the wildlife, potentially on a very large scale. So sooner or later we have to face up to the fact that politics concerns us, and if we don’t, we risk doing our wildlife a disservice. With all this in mind, when I was invited to speak on the radio about the environmental effects of the proposed The High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill 2013, I gladly accepted.

The Government is currently promoting legislation for a new north-south high speed railway between London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. The railway is referred to as ‘Phase One of High Speed 2 (HS2)’. If enacted by Parliament, the Bill will provide development consent to construct, operate and maintain Phase One of HS2. Other phases are likely to be proposed at a later date to extend the line into Scotland.

I recognise the potential this project has for job creation, economic growth, future proofing (an improved ability to cope with higher passenger capacity), and a reduction in forms of transport which are more polluting.

The HS2 Environmental Statement outlines the intention to avoid, reduce or mitigate environmental damage caused by the project. Yes, this is certainly taken into account in some areas of the project design, and there are several good strategies suggested. However, some serious issues regarding the environmental effects of HS2 remain.

Of course, all development projects have some impact on the environment. It is inevitable. However, ideally this impact is minimal, justified in terms of social and economic benefits and it is suitably compensated for.

Not all environments are equal; there are certain places which are particularly special, be it for their natural beauty, wildlife diversity, value for the community or uniqueness, and these areas should be highly regarded as protected resources. Yet, it seems that for the HS2 development this isn’t always the case. Phase one of HS2 will result in the loss or degradation of 2  Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 2 Grade II listed registered parks / gardens, 89 local wildlife areas and 19 ancient woodland sites.

The proposed HS2 line will pass through 20km of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This visually stunning environment is characterised by a large chalk escarpment and its associated traditional fields, chalk streams and ancient woodlands.

For just over half, 12.1km, of the distance within the AONB the line will pass underground in a tunnel which is bored out by machine. This tunnelling is an example of one of the strategies which can be effective in reducing above ground environmental damage. That is good news. However, within the AONB there would be further lengthy stretches of the line where trains would pass either within a low cutting, level with the ground, or over a viaduct.  These above surface lengths of the line are obviously less than ideal in an AONB, and together with their associated roads and infrastructure, will affect the views, landscape, and ecology of the area.

Two alternative suggestions for keeping the majority of the line below the surface in the AONB have been suggested by the Chiltern Ridge Action Group and the Residents Environmental Protection Association. Both have been considered for HS2 and rejected on the basis that “While the extended options are feasible in engineering terms and would have environmental benefit, there would be financial cost in expanding the tunnel. In addition this would significantly increase the construction programme and impact on the completion and opening date”.

We would assume that an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would have thorough protection in place. Indeed the National Planning Policy Framework states of an AONB that “Great weight should be given to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty, with conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage important considerations. Planning permission should be refused on all major development projects except in exceptional circumstances, where there is demonstrable public need”.

The bottom statement stresses how development with an AONB should be minimised for the sake of the environment. Yet if construction permission is given for HS2, the top statement reveals that the best environmental practice won’t be followed.

The loss that will result in ancient woodland habitat is a second major concern. Ancient woodland is defined as an area which has been continually wooded since at least 1600, and often longer. In this long period of low disturbance, rich and complex communities of organisms have arisen. Some of the UK’s most threatened and sensitive species are found within ancient woodland. Ancient woodland is the most wildlife rich habitat in the UK. It’s our equivalent of the rainforest. Long ago, this habitat would have carpeted most of Britain, today there is only 2% remaining. Once it has gone, ancient woodland cannot be replaced.The government’s own Environmental Statement reads “Ancient woodland is an irreplaceable resource. There will be permanent adverse effects, significant at the national level” There is no suitable compensation for loss of ancient woodland, nothing can replace it, or match it in terms of wildlife richness.

The HS2 Environment Statement suggests translocation of soil from the lost ancient woodlands, complete with their seed banks and associated deadwood, to new sites. Whilst this may eventually result in a decent woodland, it will never have the same value as the original ancient woodland; the integrity of the original habitat is lost, and it took over 400 years to create.

New habitats which are created by the project will certainly have some value, and should be seen as a positive thing. It’s not every day we get new areas created with nature as the reason. The total area of new ecological sites suggested by HS2 is actually slightly larger than the total area of habitat lost. But remember that these new areas will take time to grow and establish. They may not be instantly useable by the wildlife which is evicted from its previous home, and certainly not equal in value.

 The Chilterns AONB has 5 ancient woodland sites which will be lost, reduced or fragmented by HS2. The proposals put forward by local groups to keep the train line below the surface could save those specific sites. However, as we heard previously, this suggestion has been rejected.

 A slower speed on the new line would allow greater flexibility in the placement of the track, thus being able to avoid very sensitive areas. The HS2 trains are expected to reach top speeds of 360kmph. The line is designed for speeds up to 400kmph, again future proofing. But is this acceptable when we have serious environmental impacts which could be reduced by building the line, or at least parts of the line, to suit the current expected top speeds?

 Along the entire of the rail line for HS2, there will be some general negative effects for the environment, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, noise pollution, waste disposal, changes in landscape and drainage. There will be certainly be some local population reductions of certain species and some local losses. In the case of the Barn Owl this is expected to be a 1% loss of the total UK population, which is nationally significant.  I have chosen not to focus too heavily on these effects here, partly because the Environmental Statement for HS2 mitigates for these impacts as well as is currently possible; techniques include creating natural visual and sound barriers, reusing excavated material in the landscape, creating new sites for bat roosts, erecting owl boxes, translocating Great Crested Newts, and putting green bridges over the track. For a significant reduction in these general environmental effects along the line, the only plausible suggestion I can see would be not to build at all. Hence I have chosen here to focus on environment impacts which it is possible to reduce with alternations to the planning. However, I wouldn’t want to write this article without mentioning the general effects of the line.

I consider the general environmental affects mentioned above to be justifiable, if the rest of the project is sound and brings social and economic benefits, and there are compensatory environmental benefits elsewhere. However, one of the reasons I allow myself to think of these as justifiable impacts is that the UK landscape is a network of green spaces, including protected areas, which act as places where wildlife can retreat to in times of disturbance. These places also act as sources for wildlife recolonization once new habitats are formed. If we are continually losing parts of this green network, especially valuable protect sites,  the ability of our wildlife to recover from disturbances decreases.

 The Phase One HS2 Environmental Statement does illustrate some examples of environmental consideration, and those should be commended, such as the avoidance of one SSSI. I believe that if this development goes ahead there are some opportunities for positive impacts which could be seized upon; such as creating a wildlife corridor in a buffer region alongside the line, assisting species to adapt to climate change by enabling movement within the landscape. How well opportunities like this would be taken remains to seen.

My overriding concern about this development is that many areas which have been identified as sensitive, diverse, ancient and beautiful are threatened by this project.  These areas have been designated various levels of protection to keep them safe because of the environmental services they provide, the wildlife they support, the recreation and health benefits they provide and the tourists they attract.  Yet it seems that this protection can be negotiated away.

 The cost in losing these sites is so high that only in “exceptional cases” should interference with them even be considered. Yet, we hear more and more examples of projects where the developers believe they are the exception. Finding a balance of what is acceptable environmental damage against the promise of economic gain is not easy, and we do have to accept certain levels of disturbance and loss.  However, it only takes a few large projects with the balanced tipped slightly too far against the environment, to strip away our supposedly protected and extremely valuable sites. And that, is the real problem.

Right now (until the 24th Jan 2014), you can submit your comments on the Environmental Statement, to be considered by Parliament. This is your chance to get your views on the matter heard. Visit www.gov.uk/government/consultations/hs2-phase-one-environmental-statement

Read the Environment Statement: www.gov.uk/government/collections/hs2-phase-one-environmental-statement-documents

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