Explosive Wildlife Trusts’ report says HS2 will damage nature much more than expected
An explosive report from the Wildlife Trusts says that HS2 has massively underestimated the damage it’s doing to nature and biodiversity. Moreover, the company behind the controversial train line has overstated what it will give back to nature, according to the report.
The findings came as other revelations indicated that ministers are planning to cut HS2 speed limits and services. The government is apparently considering the changes to try and lower the cost of the massively over-budget project.
HS2 is costing the public billions. Officially, the expected completion costs for its various phases are well in excess of £50bn. In October 2022, however, lord Tony Berkeley estimated that its overall cost is over £150bn, when accounting for inflation. Berkeley was the deputy chair of a government-ordered independent review of the project.
HS2 promises no net nature loss
The Wildlife Trusts released the report on 8 February. It serves as an effective audit of HS2’s claims about the project’s impact on nature. As the Canary has previously reported, HS2 risks leaving no less than 108 ancient woodlands, along with hundreds of other wildlife sites, destroyed or damaged beyond repair. This is according to a comprehensive survey from 2020 involving many individual Wildlife Trusts, along with other nature organisations and landowners.
Despite the UK being one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, this is permissible under the current regulatory regime. That’s partly because Natural England has devised a Biodiversity net gain (BNG) metric. The measurement system enables developers to secure a green light to destroy existing wildlife habitat. They can do so as long as their plans include promises to replace that biodiversity elsewhere and, in many cases, increase it overall.
As the Wildlife Trusts have pointed out:
HS2 Ltd promised that nature would not lose out when much-loved natural areas and important habitats were destroyed to make way for construction of the high-speed rail line. It made a commitment to No Net Loss of biodiversity for replaceable habitats along Phase 1 and 2a of the route, and a net gain for biodiversity along Phase 2b.
HS2 causing massive nature losses
The nature organisation’s audit of HS2’s calculations for its no net loss and net gain promises found huge flaws.
The Wildlife Trusts highlighted that to properly calculate potential losses and gains, the “baseline assessments” of the nature in question need to be accurate. However, the organisation said that HS2 has “missed out” important wildlife habitats, such as ponds, trees, and watercourses, from its data.
This would mean that when destroying those areas to make way for the train line, the amount of losses on paper wouldn’t match what they are in reality:
Moreover, the Wildlife Trusts’ report asserted that HS2 has over-estimated the value of the biodiversity it will replace losses with. For example, HS2 has given new hedgerows that it plans to plant a higher nature value than “established tree-lined and species-rich hedgerows”, according to the report.
In sum, the organisation said that HS2’s Phase 1 will at a minimum cause 7.9 more biodiversity loss than HS2’s ‘No Net Loss’ accounting tool indicates. The Wildlife Trusts calculations indicate at least 17% nature loss, rather than 2.6%.
For Phase 2a, the organisation says nature loss will stand at 42%, rather than 17.01%. This means that the nature loss could be 3.6 times greater than HS2 claims, according to the Wildlife Trusts’ findings.
HS2: construction must pause
The Canary contacted HS2 about the report. A spokesperson said:
The Wildlife Trusts’ report is unreliable, based on limited desk research. Our data is based on extensive surveys by ecologists visiting huge areas of land. HS2 works with independent environmental organisations to verify our data but the Wildlife Trusts has refused to meet despite many requests. In doing so they are opposing new zero carbon, public transport. HS2 will not only deliver the country’s largest environmental programme, planting 7 million trees, it will get more cars and lorries off the road and reduce domestic flying which is critical in tackling climate change.
As Channel 4 News reported, the Wildlife Trusts have responded to HS2’s rebuke. The organisation characterised the surveys that HS2 mentioned as an example of the company “marking its own homework”.
Author of the report Dr Rachel Giles, who is planning manager at Cheshire Wildlife Trust, said:
We’ve been shocked by the errors and discrepancies that our audit revealed. HS2 Ltd must stop using a deeply flawed method to calculate the value of nature affected by the construction of the route. It is astonishing that a flagship infrastructure project is able to use a metric which is untested and not fit for purpose.
The Wildlife Trusts’ report called for multiple actions to remedy the situation. These include HS2 re-mapping and re-evaluating wildlife habitats along Phase 1 and 2a. The organisation has also urged the government to assess the new findings and take appropriate action. Critically, the Wildlife Trusts said all construction by HS2 must pause immediately, while the company and the government carry out the necessary investigations and revisions.
HS2’s chequered history so far is filled with scandals, including its extortionate monetary cost. But the world is amid an extinction crisis. To tackle this, the preservation of wildlife and wild spaces needs to be paramount. HS2’s cost to nature is the biggest scandal of all – and wholly unacceptable.
Featured image via Stop HS2 / YouTube
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