HS2: failing in its vision, one phase at a time

Ian Jelley sets out the HS2 ambition vs the reality as seen in recent weeks.

Over a decade ago, the HS2 project was heralded as “world-leading” in its design and construction techniques. Yet over the course of the last ten years Wildlife Trusts have had to challenge both – in 2013, my Trust brought a judicial review against the scheme and in 2015, petitioned against it twice at Select Committee in order to influence the design and route plans.  In recent weeks, the first stages of enabling works and construction for Phase 1 have started and the works undertaken and their impacts on wildlife have caused widespread alarm. Not only have works to remove ancient woodland habitat been undertaken at the height of spring during the bird nesting season, but major issues have been raised about impacts on other species. Formal complaints have been sent to the government’s adviser, Natural England, by members of the public.

We have been copied in to several of these complaints, and are increasingly worried about the numbers of complaints we’re seeing – Natural England and the HS2 Ltd complaints team will be extremely busy responding to these reported concerns.  The messages we’ve seen clearly demonstrate the strength of feeling of a public infuriated that the HS2 scheme has been allowed to continue during the COVID-19 crisis, when the rest of the country has been in lockdown. Others have made specific complaints, for example about public rights of way being closed without notice.  Most worrying for us have been reports from local people of broken assurances or license agreements, or HS2’s own operations criteria, which were supposed to carefully manage the impacts of works on vulnerable wildlife.

Crackley Wood path Credit Sue Steward New Leaf Images

Sue Steward New Leaf Images

Fears for wildlife

A major concern has been raised about the tawny owls nesting in Broadwells Wood, just outside Kenilworth in Warwickshire – a species that was moved onto the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern in 2015 because of concerns of a long-term population decline, and which are easily disturbed. Yet trees were removed from woods close by last month, against standing advice from Natural England  that such tree and hedgerow works should not take place between March and August.

Unnecessary negative impacts on local badger populations have also been raised with Natural England. An extraordinary badger licence granted to HS2 Ltd by Natural England allows for disturbance of a particular badger sett during the breeding season, as long as that disturbance does not exceed “4-6 weeks” - but complaints were made when this timeframe ran out with no end to the disturbance in sight for months to come. This large, active, breeding colony of badgers inhabits land not owned by HS2 Ltd, or due to be worked on by HS2, yet local evidence shows the sett has become effectively isolated on an ‘island’ surrounded by construction works.

Badger cub Brandon credit Steven Cheshire

Credit Steven Cheshire

As you can imagine, it’s been a source of huge frustration and dismay to us that in some situations it appears HS2 Ltd has special permissions to break established law with conditions associated.  Because works are not being undertaken in a linear route, it is difficult to pinpoint what is going on where – a problem worsened by many of our staff either having to be furloughed or adhering to the government restrictions on travel and work due to the COVID-19 outbreak. During the recent lockdown Natural England were not sending out any field officers either, so it’s crucial that contractors are held to account.  In May, Natural England started undertaking site visits again several weeks after complaints were raised.

Clearly a linear infrastructure project of this scale has the potential to create a physical barrier in the landscape for people and wildlife needing to move from east to west, and vice versa.  Whilst the human impact of this has been well documented - with roads re-routed and modifications in the design to minimise the impact on existing transport networks - but the same cannot be said about the impacts on wildlife.  To date we are not aware of any planned ‘green bridges’ across the route in Warwickshire, despite extensive evidence provided to demonstrate the benefits for species movement, and the best locations to maximise the benefits of any structures created.  In continental Europe and around the world the creation of green bridges are now common place when transport infrastructure bisects an important landscape.  This is just another example of how HS2 is failing to live up to its ‘world leading’ ambition.

So it’s not a surprise to see feelings running high as construction begins. Last year it was revealed that HS2 Ltd hired its own specialist security services group to enforce land and property warrants, as well as to remove protesters from sites. Police have set up a national group to deal with issues related to building HS2 and deal with problems such as large-scale protests.  HS2 Ltd said the special arrangement was a means of keeping overall costs down by helping the project to avoid delays. Issues outlined in 2018 as potentially requiring police attention included:

  • Wildlife and environmental protests;
  • Protests arising “from local community issues”;
  • Protests relating to compulsory purchase of property;
  • Crime and disorder carried out by construction workers

We won’t stop trying to keep HS2 on track

From the initial plans through to the present day we continue to call on HS2 Ltd to raise its aspirations for the environment.  This ‘world leading’ infrastructure project has so far fallen well below the standards expected for its environmental impact.  The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to all reflect on the way things work in our world, and to consider what a more sustainable future might look like. Now more than ever, there is an opportunity for a change in approach.  One that recognises the importance of the natural world and seeks to protect and enhance it.  The natural world provides our food, our water, our air and the sanctuary so crucial for our mental and physical wellbeing.  When national projects like HS2 overlook that, it undermines the building blocks of humanity – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

This blog is part of a series on HS2 with posts from other Wildlife Trusts. 

Read the series of HS2 blogs