So, after years of waiting, the Prime Minister is expected today to give the green light to HS2.
Without a fundamental rethink, this is the wrong decision.
We are in an ecological emergency. This is widely acknowledged, not least by parliament in its declaration last year. This means that everything we do must be looked at through this lens. We need to underline that the starting point for any development is “how will this affect nature” and “are there any alternatives that would avoid harming nature?” Then we need developers to continue to follow both the law and good practice, by first mitigating any harm and then compensating for any unavoidable potential damage.
But given the emergency, there is now the added imperative that in any compensation, the developer should be looking at providing more nature than has been lost. This is called net gain. The principle is proposed in the government's new Environment Bill, but perhaps with an eye to HS2, net gain currently does not apply to large scale national infrastructure projects.
This is a mistake. As the Wildlife Trusts revealed in their report last month, HS2 is a significant threat to wildlife. As currently planned, 108 ancient woodlands are at risk, precious landscapes will be fragmented and populations of species such as barn owl are being put at national risk.
Regarding barn owls, we are already seeing reports of barn owl nest sites being blocked in advance of construction. The RSPB and partners, including the Barn Owl Trust, were originally consulted over how provision could be made for these birds, but the response from HS2Ltd was so wholly inadequate we were forced to withdraw from the process and write a letter of complaint to HS2Ltd and then-Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling MP. Supportive MPs also asked questions in the House of Commons. None of this got us anywhere.
This is but one example of why we believe that, as proposed, the construction of HS2 will result in net loss. How does that square with the ecological emergency, or even the most basic good practice?
It doesn’t have to be like this, surely? We all know that there are very real needs for new homes and infrastructure: indeed, we have successfully worked with many developers over the years to guarantee good outcomes for nature. And while few would argue that the UK's strategic transport infrastructure does not need improving, equally, few would agree that this needs to be done at the cost of wildlife.
Indeed, in a separate development, a neighboring rail proposal, the East-West Rail link between Cambridge and Oxford, has voluntarily committed to delivering 10% biodiversity net gain.
As a truly national scheme, HS2 has become a totemic environmental issue and a test for the new government’s environmental credentials. We urge the Government and HS2Ltd to get on a different track and start taking their responsibilities to wildlife seriously.
For the sake of wildlife, we continue to urge a rethink of HS2.
Less than half of these billions could be spent on upgrading existing routes with little or no effect on wildlife or peoples homes. This is without any doubt what so ever the largest waste of money that has ever been spent in this country to save 20 minutes on a rail journey
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