According to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Parliament, as the planning authority for HS2, should ensure that everything possible is done to minimise damage to ancient woodlands and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

In addition, it suggests that where environmental loss is genuinely unavoidable, that compensation is applied to the “fullest extent possible”.

Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP, said: “It is imperative that an infrastructure project on such a large scale implements proper environmental safeguards and ensures that impacts are minimised. This means adopting stringent, enforceable standards and setting aside adequate funding.

“That won’t happen if HS2 Ltd can avoid implementing safeguards if they consider them to be ‘impracticable’ or ‘unreasonable’. There needs to be a separate ring-fenced budget for these safeguards and for compensation, separate from the rest of the HS2 budget, to prevent the environment being squeezed if HS2 costs grow,” added Walley.

The EAC also highlighted the need for the Government to show “real commitment” to dealing with the impact that HS2 will have on the British 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,” she added.

Commenting, Woodland Trust Senior Conservation Advisor, Richard Barnes, said: “Our research has found at least 48 ancient woods at risk of suffering loss or damage on Phase 1 of HS2. No amount of new planting would ever be equivalent to this habitat lost. HS2 Ltd only recognise 19 in the Environmental Statement, which was also missing data and contained multiple inaccuracies”.

The EAC acknowledged that, given the scale of the HS2 scheme, the Government’s aim of ‘no net biodiversity loss’ for the project is challenging. Despite this, it said the Government should seek out opportunities to do more.

“As it refines the processes guiding biodiversity offsetting, it should identify possibilities to produce biodiversity gains and add to local communities’ well-being,” the report claims.

Commenting on the recommendations, an HS2 Ltd spokesperson said: “The levels of environmental protection set out in the Environmental Statement are higher than for any other project of such a significant scale. This includes a commitment to plant more than two million trees along the route of Phase One.

“We will contribute to the Government’s response to the committee once the entire detail of the report has been given due consideration,” the spokesperson added.

There has been some debate about whether HS2 will deliver a reduction in emissions by taking travellers off the roads and planes. The EAC says that at best the savings are likely to be relatively small.

The report says the carbon footprint of the project “hinges on emissions from its construction as well as from the operation of the trains”, and that raises issues about striking a balance between minimising emissions and minimising disruption to communities and habitats.

“Perhaps a bigger issue is the potential effect of the decarbonisation of the generation of the electricity used by the trains; a matter that has been largely absent from the HS2 debate so far,” it says.

HS2 Ltd claim that the new network will see millions of air and road trips move to rail, reducing carbon emissions and congestion, and the space it will create for freight will move hundreds of HGVs per hour off the roads.

However, the report recommends lowering the maximum speed of HS2 trains – 225 mph – as it has been estimated that a train travelling at this speed would use three times as much energy as an Inter-City train travelling at 125 mph.

High speed rail think tank Greengauge 21 calculated that reducing the top operation speed from 225 mph to 185 mph would result in a 19% reduction in energy consumption, it would also represent a 7% overall reduction in HS2’s emissions.

In February, the London Assembly Environment Committee said “hidden costs” regarding the environmental and health impacts of the HS2 project have been underestimated.

Leigh Stringer

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