April 7, 2014 10:00 am

Commons committee warns of environmental impact of HS2

Artist's impression of an HS2 train©PA

Tougher environmental safeguards should be imposed on HS2 to minimise irreplaceable damage, particularly to ancient woodland, and harmful impacts of the proposed north-south rail link, a parliamentary committee has recommended.

HS2 Ltd should engage in much greater consultation and not resort to claiming that measures are not “practicable or reasonable” to “readily dismiss essential environmental protections”, the House of Commons environmental audit committee has said in a report published on Monday.

Reducing the trains’ maximum speed of 225mph should also be considered until electricity generation has been “sufficiently decarbonised to make that a marginal issue”, the report says. However, it concedes that the project was never designed primarily to be an emissions-reducing initiative.

Some 40 per cent of the route from London to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham, has yet to be assessed from an environmental perspective and the economic case for the £50bn project “does not take most environmental impacts into consideration”, the MPs said.

“The lack of a ringfenced budget for environmental protection fuels fears of cutting corners if the overall budget needs to be brought down,” they said.

Joan Walley, the committee chairwoman, said: “The government needs to show real commitment to dealing with the impact that HS2 will have on our countryside and wildlife. Ancient woodlands and other hard to replace sites of natural value should not be subordinated to crude economic calculations of cost and benefit.”

Green groups say that environmentally valuable areas and sites of special scientific interest are at risk because many suggestions, including greater use of tunnels, putting transmission lines underground and erecting more noise barriers have been rejected on cost grounds.

Ancient woodlands and other hard to replace sites of natural value should not be subordinated to crude economic calculations of cost and benefit

- Joan Walley, committee chairwoman

The committee said it only heard evidence for two days in order to produce its report before the second reading of the HS2 bill at the end of this month.

Richard Barnes, senior conservation adviser of Woodland Trust, said the report was “spot on in terms of highlighting what needs to be done before government or HS2 can really claim to have taken their environmental responsibilities seriously”.

He said the trust’s research has found at least 48 ancient woods to be at risk in the first phase of the project, from London to Birmingham. HS2 Ltd’s environmental statement “only recognised 19, was missing data and contained multiple inaccuracies”, Mr Barnes said.

HS2 Ltd said the environmental protection levels were higher than “for any other project of such a significant scale”, including a commitment to plant more than 2m trees.

“The committee has acknowledged that the aim of ‘no net biodiversity loss’ is a challenging one,” said the company. “There may be opportunities to achieve a net gain as the project develops and these will be considered fully.’’

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