All will be revealed in due course, perhaps

In my blog Let’s be courageous, part 3 (posted 20 Aug 2016) I reported that the Director General High Speed Rail Group at the Department for Transport (DfT), David Prout, had confirmed to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in July last year that the DfT had “invited [HS2 Ltd] to make proposals and to offer us advice on whether or not we should extend the programme [for HS2 Phase 1] by up to 12 months”. He added that the advice had not been received at that time (see footnote 1).

At the same evidence session, the then Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, Simon Kirby, told the Committee that the work on this programme review was “well under way” and the Company would be “producing a report to the DFT in the autumn [of 2016]”, which he clarified as “September or October”. He stressed that this report “will be advice to the Department” and that “it will ultimately be a matter for Ministers to take decisions on what the timetable is” (see footnote 2).

The Chair of the PAC, Meg Hillier MP, wanted to know if the report to the DfT will be “available publicly” and if the “figures and that information [will] be made available to the public, so we can see the assumptions it is built on”. The reply from the DfT’s Permanent Secretary, Philip Rutnam, to this question is one that Sir Humphrey Appleby might have uttered (see footnote 3):

“We will need to see what the report is first”.

I think that we can assume that, even working to normal HS2 promise slippages, the DfT will have seen the report by now, and the decision appears to have been taken not to trouble the public with whatever it might say, as I can find no trace of it in the public domain.

In the report on its inquiry on HS2 progress the PAC recommends that “at the same time” that it was to announce the route for Phase 2b, the Government “should confirm whether it intends to open phase 1 in 2026 or 2027” (see footnote 4). For once, the Government appears to have heeded a select committee recommendation concerning HS2, because the command paper announcing (the majority of) the Government’s preferred route for Phase 2b (Cm9355) contains the single sentence (see footnote 5):

“The first part of HS2, from London to Birmingham, is on track to open in 2026 as planned.”

This assurance comes as something of a surprise. The mood music for the witness session last July was certainly downbeat, and there was the scent of timescale problems in the air. In its report the PAC repeats the DfT’s view that the confidence level that Phase 1 would be delivered on time, estimated by HS2 Ltd to be sixty per cent, was “too low” (see footnote 6). The PAC’s verdict is that its Members “are not convinced that the timetable for delivering High Speed 2 is realistic” (see footnote 4).

There are two obvious scenarios that could lead to the DfT confirming that Phase 1 is “on track”. The first is that this was the conclusion of the report submitted to the Department by HS2 Ltd. The second is that the HS2 Ltd report was one that confessed to delays and requested that the project completion date be extended, but that the Secretary of State had rejected any talk of delays as being unacceptable and has refused to grant any extension to the Phase 1 in-service date. Without access to the HS2 Ltd report we are not in a position to judge which scenario is the true one – perhaps one of those enterprising FoI seekers amongst us might take up this challenge on our behalf, as I feel we have a right to know what advice on Phase 1 timescales ministers have been given.

Going back to that PAC oral evidence session in July last year, it does appear that the time is fast approaching for another Phase 1 state of health check. Mr Prout advised the PAC that a “further baselining of cost and schedule” will be “available next Easter” (see footnote 3), so we must look forward to becoming wiser in just a few weeks. It may be that, now that the Government has Royal Assent for Phase 1 firmly tucked under its belt, the Secretary of State will be more relaxed about revealing any bad news on Phase 1 timescales that may sitting on his desk.

Footnotes:

  1. See the final paragraph under Q55 in the transcript Oral evidence: High Speed 2, HC 486, Commons Public Accounts Committee, 11thJuly 2016.
  2. See Q58 to Q60 in the Commons Public Accounts Committee transcript for 11thJuly 2016.
  3. See Q61 in the Commons Public Accounts Committee transcript for 11thJuly 2016.
  4. See paragraph 1 in Conclusions and recommendations on page 5 of the report Progress with preparations for High Speed 2, House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts Fourteenth Report of Session 2016-17, September 2016.
  5. See paragraph 2.1 in the publication High Speed Two: From Crewe to Manchester, the West Midlands to Leeds and beyond, Department for Transport, Cm9355, November 2016.
  6. See paragraph 1 on page 7 of Progress with preparations for High Speed 2.

PS: I was amused to see recently one of those captions that BBC News see fit to display during its coverage – presumably to serve the needs of the inattentive, rather than the deaf – a reference to a bill gaining “Royal Ascent”. I am ashamed to say that it conjured up pictures in my mind of Her Majesty perched on a cloud in the manner of a Renaissance painting of the Assumption.

He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 2

(… continued from He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 1, posted on 20 Mar 2017).

In his most recent letter to the Transport Secretary, the Chairman of the Commons Treasury Committee, the Rt Hon Andrew Tyrie MP, leads on the November 2016 recalculation of the BCR for the full network published by the Department for Transport (DfT). He zooms in on a particular figure, in the form of a bar chart, that has been used to illustrate this case, and that I have reproduced below.

Changes made to the full Y BCR (Source: Department for Transport, see footnote 1)

In this figure the extreme left-hand blue bar represents the BCR that was calculated in November 2015 (see footnote 2), and the other two blue bars represent the BCR values as recalculated at November 2016, both for the original Sheffield Meadowhall station option and for the new “M18 alignment”. The green and, sort of, orange bars in between the two left-hand blue bars illustrate the contributions that have been made by various identified adjustments to the uplift in BCR between the November 2015 and November 2016 recalculations.

In his letter, Mr Tyrie comments, in particular, on the largest of these contributions; an increase in BCR of 1.6 that comes from “more recent outturn demand data from 2011 to 2014”. He observes:

“If the demand update were to be removed, the benefit-cost ratio falls dramatically, from 2.7 for the full network, to 1.1. In other words, without this latest data, the business case suggests that HS2 is scarcely worth the candle.”

Indicating that he entertains a degree of scepticism that previously unsuspected hordes have only now been identified as potential seat occupiers on HS2, Mr Tyrie opines that “the credibility of this sharp rise in forecast demand is crucial to the whole HS2 project”. He also makes the reasonable comment that, on the basis that the DfT is now claiming that the actual passenger growth between 2011 and 2014 was much higher than forecast by its modelling, it is a “serious concern” that the model got things so wrong. If the model proved to be so inaccurate over so short a time span, what possible faith can we have in the HS2 demand predictions that stretch twenty years or so into the future?

In fairness, in its document the DfT cites two other factors that have contributed to the BCR hike from its “demand update”: updating the base year in the demand model to 2014/15; and, changing from a bespoke HS2 demand cap (at a certain level of demand) to a standard rail approach 20 years in the future (see footnote 3). The document does not divulge how much these two additional factors have contributed to the BCR hike, but I suspect that the removal of the demand cap, in particular, might be significant (see footnote 4).

For those of us wishing to delve deeper into the reasons behind the “demand update” BCR hike, the DfT document does promise “a full report on the changes [since 2015]” in another document that is referenced in a footnote (see footnote 5). Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate this cited document, although I have found one in a similar vein, but considering changes since 2013, and published a couple of months later than the date given in the citation. Confusingly, this alternative source indicates that “demand growth is forecast to be slightly slower than in our previous forecasts” (see footnote 6). The document also indicates that the demand cap is still being applied (see footnote 7) and that the changes in predicted demand have resulted in a slight BCR reduction, rather than the steep increase referred to by Mr Tyrie (see footnote 8).

So what is going on here? Clearly, the Transport Secretary not only owes Mr Tyrie a response to his observations, but owes those of us who concern themselves with such matters a clarification of this apparently confused situation.

Mr Tyrie’s letter has also raised, admittedly somewhat obliquely, another bone of contention concerning the business case evaluation. When Mr Tyrie refers, in his opening paragraphs, to the value for money (VfM) rating of the project, he employs BCRs that exclude wider economic impacts (WEI). The DfT, on the other hand, whilst admittedly usually quoting BCR with and without WEIs, tends to favour the BCR including WEIs when evaluating the VfM rating. One authority, at least, supports Mr Tyrie over the DfT, recommending that WEIs are “only used as a sensitivity test, rather than a key element of the evaluation” (see footnote 9).

One final observation that I wish to make concerns the assertion made by Mr Grayling, that I reported in part 1, that the VfM rating is “robust to a wide range of scenarios”. The two categories of VfM “low” and “medium” are both 0.5 BCR units in range. This means that, in theory, a BCR hike of 1.6, as identified in the above bar chart, could take the rating from “poor” to “high” (see footnote 10), indicating perhaps that VfM is not as robust a measure as Mr Grayling would like to think.

Footnotes:

  1. The bar chart is Figure 1.2 in the publication High Speed Two Phase 2b, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case, Department for Transport, November 2016.
  2. See paragraph 3.15 in the publication HS2 West Midlands to Crewe, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case, Department for Transport, November 2015.
  3. See the third bullet point of paragraph 1.25 in High Speed Two Phase 2b, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case.
  4. For a discussion of the impact that the demand cap can have upon the demand prediction see my blog Let’s be courageous, part 12 (posted 11 Oct 2016).
  5. See paragraph 1.24 and footnote 5 on page 10 of High Speed Two Phase 2b, Strategic Outline Business Case: Economic Case. The cited document, which I have been unable to trace is Summary of Key Changes to the Economic Case Since 2015, HS2 Ltd, November 2016.
  6. See paragraph 5.2.2 in the publication HS2 Phase Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case since October 2013, HS2 Ltd, January 2016.
  7. See paragraph 5.2.1 in HS2 Phase Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case since October 2013.
  8. See paragraph 5.3.4 and Table 8 in HS2 Phase Two Summary of key changes to the Economic Case since October 2013.
  9. See page 19 of the paper Douglas N, and O’Keeffe B. Wider Economic Benefits – When and if they should be used in evaluation of transport projects, Australasian Transport Research Forum 2016 Proceedings, November 2016.
  10. The BCR ranges that set the VfM category boundaries may be found in paragraph 2.4 of the publication Value for Money Assessment: Advice Note for Local Transport Decision Makers, Department for Transport, December 2013.

He came forth and saw a great multitude, part 1

When one considers that one of the aims of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee is to “examine the expenditure, administration and policy of HM Treasury” (see footnote 1) and that, by the time that high-speed trains are running to Leeds and Manchester, the costs of achieving that feat – the great majority of which we can expect to be charged to the taxpayers’ credit card – will have climbed to goodness knows how many tens of billions of pounds sterling, it is amazing how little fuss the Committee has made about the HS2 project.

In the summer of 2013 the Committee did ask some questions about HS2 of witnesses appearing to give oral evidence in connection with its inquiry into the 2013 Spending Round, and devoted just over four pages to the topic in the subsequent report (see footnote 2). This report, whilst not holding a candle to the thorough analysis presented by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee eighteen months later, did conclude that “the Government should formally reassess the project before deciding whether to proceed”.

This reassessment came in the autumn of the same year with the publishing of a controversial report by KPMG and a revision of the Government’s calculation in the document The strategic case for HS2. The Treasury Committee marked these events by holding an oral evidence session on the “economics of HS2” in November 2013.

Despite the Chairman remarking during that session that HS2 was “one of the biggest public spending decisions ever undertaken by a government” (see footnote 3) and promising that the “likelihood is we will be asking for more” such sessions (see footnote 4), as far as I have been unable to determine – and please correct me if I am wrong about this – no further evidence sessions have been held by the Committee since then, and the Committee’s thoughts on what they heard in late 2013 have never been committed to a formal report.

So it was unexpected, but welcome, when last autumn the Chairman of the Committee, the Rt Hon Andrew Tyrie MP, lobbed a grenade in the direction of the Government’s ramparts in the form of a letter to the newly-appointed Transport Secretary, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP. In this letter, Mr Tyrie raises basic questions about the choice of design speed and route that you might have thought would have been better asked much earlier in the project’s life, but he also offers the telling judgement that “HS2 has the weakest economic case of all the projects within the infrastructure programme, yet it is being pushed through with the most enthusiasm”.

I’m surprised that a time-served politician should find this contradiction remarkable: doing things that defy simple logic seems, to me at least, to be standard fayre for the Westminster crowd, especially when powerful commercial forces are lobbying hard in favour of a project.

It took the Secretary of State almost a full month to reply to his Conservative colleague, and his detailed rebuttal of Mr Tyrie’s reservations about HS2 employs figures and arguments that have been rehearsed many times. Nevertheless, Mr Grayling does make two important observations in his letter. In the first place, he claims that the use of the “value for money” category (poor, low, medium, high or very high) rather than just a point BCR makes the assessment “robust to a wide range of scenarios”. Secondly, he concedes that some of the alternatives to HS2 that have been considered, based upon upgrading the existing rail network, “can deliver high value for money”, but that they were discounted as they “would pose an unacceptable level of disruption to both passengers and freight” and “would not deliver the step change in capacity and connectivity delivers” (see footnote 5).

Barely had the ink dried on Mr Grayling’s letter than a revised business case for the full Y network was published by the Government. If this rehash of the pro-HS2 case was meant to quell criticism it clearly failed to satisfy Mr Tyrie, who, straight after the Christmas/New Year break and even before the return from the Christmas recess, rattled off another missive to the Transport Secretary.

At the end of his letter Mr Tyrie informs the Secretary of State that, as has been the case with the previous two episodes of their correspondence, it was his intention to place “in the public domain” that letter and Mr Grayling’s “response in due course”. I have been unable to find any trace of a reply on the Committee’s website, and conclude that the greater probability is that this is accounted for by the Transport Secretary’s failure to reply, rather than tardiness on publishing any letter from him on the part of the Committee’s secretariat. If this is indeed the case, then I find Mr Grayling’s lack of courtesy to the Committee to be perplexing; after all, though he may be basking in the victory of securing Royal Assent for Phase 1, he still needs to drive both parts of Phase 2 through Parliament, and surely needs to keep influential Commons committees on side, as far as he can.

In the concluding part of this two-part series I will analyse the points made, and questions asked, in Mr Tyrie’s latest letter.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. See the webpage Role – Treasury Committee on Parliament’s website.
  2. Spending Round 2013 set out the Government’s spending plans for the period between April 2015 and April 2016. For the Committee’s discussion of HS2 see paragraphs 59 to 67 in the report Spending Round 2013, House of Commons Treasury Committee Third Report of Session 2013-14, September 2013.
  3. See under Q1 on page 1 of the transcript of Oral evidence: Economics of HS2, HC 788, House of Commons Treasury Committee, Tuesday 5thNovember 2013.
  4. See the final paragraph on page 32 of the transcript of the Commons Treasury Committee oral evidence session held on Tuesday 5thNovember 2013.
  5. The Secretary of State appears to be forgetting the severe disruption to Euston station that we can expect HS2 construction work to involve, over a period of seventeen years, and that, as I have argued a number of times, HS2 capacity will not be delivered at the points in the network where it is most needed.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Commons Treasury Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog has been taken is an uncorrected transcript of evidence, which is not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

Compensation culture, part 8

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 7, posted on 12 Mar 2017).

By concentrating its proposals for habitat offset creation largely within the bill limits, HS2 Ltd has created further potential pitfalls that could reduce the effectiveness of the compensation provided. Clearly there is no guarantee that land within the bill limits is suitable for offset habitat creation, and there are likely to be sites outside the bill limits that are far more appropriate for this purpose. The habitat types that can be created on land within the bill limits are also likely to be constrained, and this probably accounts for the prevalence of new grassland and scrubland in the HS2 offsetting proposals.

A further consideration is that created habitat, if successfully established, is likely to attract flying animals: drawing birds and bats close to a location where trains are hurtling past at up to 225mph is a likely invitation to a violent death.

Another potential problem that is likely to arise with the creation of offset habitat within the bill limits is one of timescales. In the excellent critique of the merits of biodiversity offsetting that may be found in the Lawton Report the point is made that “wherever possible, the created habitat should be in place before the original site is lost” (see footnote 1). Whilst I am sure that there will be locations within the bill limits where new habitat could be created before major construction work begins, much of the land will be disturbed, either dug up or compacted by heavy machinery passing over, and is unlikely to be unavailable for nature for several years after existing habitat has been destroyed.

Further, concentrating offset habitat creation in what is effectively a linear arrangement determined by the bill limits is unlikely to be optimum in achieving the linking together of areas to make ecological corridors and a connected network, as envisaged in the Lawton Report (see footnote 2 and footnote 3).

In the interests of balance though, I should point out that the metric devised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for the pilot schemes does rate offset habitat sited near to the habitat being lost as having a higher biodiversity value than offsets located further away. Whilst keeping within the bill limits does not ensure that lost and offset habitats will be close to each other, it will lend support to this aim (see footnote 4). However, the Defra bias has not been employed in the HS2 metric.

Another important consideration in determining the amount of offset habitat required to balance the biodiversity loss caused by habitat destruction is the time taken for the offset habitat to reach the required quality or level of maturity to replace that loss. This lag in replacing biodiversity loss is taken into account in the metric by reducing the biodiversity value of offset habitat that will take longer to reach maturity. In its review of the HS2 offsetting proposals, Natural England, whilst criticising the Defra pilot scheme metric for being “difficult to use within a calculation due to its wide ranges”, quotes expert advice as regarding the HS2 Ltd treatment as being “overly optimistic” (see footnote 5). The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee agreed, opining that the discounting applied by the HS2 Ltd metric “does not fully represent the extent of the environmental harm from the potential delays” (see footnote 6).

I have to confess that I do not find the HS2 Ltd methodology, as far as it is explained in the HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation report, very reassuring. I feel that HS2 Ltd has taken advantage of the failure, so far, of Defra to apply the knowledge that has been gained from the pilot schemes to produce a definitive set of guidelines for offsetting and has cherry-picked the Defra guidelines, and adapted them to produce a metric for HS2 that is convenient to its sponsors. There are many bones of contention associated with the methodology that that HS2 Ltd is following. Aside from the issues that I have identified in this and the previous two parts of this blog series – keeping largely within the bill limits, the failure of the offsets to match, or better, the quality of habitat destroyed, falling short in replacing hedgerows and underestimating the effects of the time required for offsetting to establish – there are the two major concerns that I have reported previously: refusing to remove SSSIs from the offsetting calculation (see footnote 7), and falling short of the recommended offset ratio for ancient woodland (see footnote 8).

I find it irksome, to say the least, that, despite this obvious failure by HS2 Ltd to meet its environmental responsibilities, the HS2 publicity machine is spinning a somewhat different tale.

Whilst the potential for biodiversity offsetting to reduce the environmental damage resulting from development activities must be welcomed, if it is employed without the necessary integrity it also has the potential to be a two-edged weapon, as the Lawton Report warns (see footnote 9):

“Biodiversity offsetting must not become a ‘licence to destroy’ or damage existing habitat of recognised value. In other words, offsets must only be used to compensate for genuinely unavoidable damage. Development should avoid adverse impacts first, mitigate impacts second and compensate for unavoidable impacts as a last resort.”

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) was obviously concerned that HS2 Ltd had not had sufficient regard to this “mitigation hierarchy”, venturing that “the Government has significant work to do to demonstrate that this approach is being applied, given the environmental damage current plans envisage to ancient woodlands, SSSIs and local wildlife sites, and the possible significant harm for particular species affected (see footnote 10). The EAC also noted that “throughout the Environmental Statement, ‘mitigation’ and ‘compensation’ measures had been used interchangeably”, whereas these are clearly very different in the context of the mitigation hierarchy (see footnote 11).

It is certainly my impression that HS2 Ltd has slipped into a form of “compensation culture”, and has been far too willing to use offsetting where it should have tried harder to avoid or mitigate instead.

Footnotes:

  1. See sub-item (vii) of paragraph 6.4.3 of the report Lawton, J H, et al, Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network, report to Defra, September 2010.
  2. See Recommendation 19 in paragraph 6.4.1 of Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network.
  3. The HS2 no net loss metric does however, unlike the Defra pilot schemes metric, take account of any contribution made to improving the ecological network by applying a multiplier to enhance the biological units value of offset habitat. See paragraph 5.1 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016. Whilst the Natural England review applauds the intention, it condemns the methodology as “over simplistic” and recommends the removal of the multiplier from the HS2 metric. See paragraph 5.27 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  4. See paragraph 5.2 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  5. See paragraphs 7.6 and 7.14 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  6. See paragraph 40 in the publication HS2 and the environment, 13thReport of Session 2013‒14, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, April 2014.
  7. See my blogs Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 1 (posted 7 Jan 2017) and Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 2 (posted 11 Jan 2017).
  8. See my blogs Cutting out the old wood, part 3 (posted 18 Dec 2016), Cutting out the old wood, part 4 (posted 22 Dec 2016) and Cutting out the old wood, part 5 (posted 26 Dec 2016).
  9. See sub-item (i) of paragraph 6.4.3 in Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network.
  10. See paragraph 18 in HS2 and the environment.
  11. See paragraph 15 in HS2 and the environment.

 

Compensation culture, part 7

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 6, posted on 8 Mar 2017).

As I reported in my blog One myth busted (posted 16 Nov 2016), the results of the biodiversity offset calculation for Phase 1 of HS2 demonstrate that there would be a reduction of approximately 3 per cent in biodiversity units caused by the project. HS2 Ltd see this as representing “good progress … towards the goal of no-net loss” (see footnote 1).

But employing this single figure to measure the environmental credentials of the project is, I suggest, far too simplistic.

In the first place there is the stricture in Biodiversity 2020 that “losses should be offset by gains in other important species and habitats, not by replacing the rare and threatened with the commonplace, but by ensuring the natural environment remains diverse and continues to provide essential services” (see footnote 2). This requirement is reflected in the guidance notes that were issued by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for developers taking part in the biodiversity offsetting pilots. These notes set rules for “matching” lost and offset habitat types that call for the loss of high distinctiveness habitat to be offset by high distinctiveness habitat, and “usually [of] the same habitat type”, and for medium and low distinctiveness habitat loss to be offset by medium or high (see footnote 3).

On the basis of the summary of the offset calculations that I reported in part 6, HS2 Phase 1 is falling far short of these requirements if either the woodland and woodland/scrub habitats or the “other habitats” are considered, alone. HS2 Ltd might be able to argue that the shortcomings in offsetting these habitat types that the analysis has revealed are balanced by the appreciable gains and trade-ups that have been demonstrated for grassland, since Biodiversity 2020 allows that “pragmatically unavoidable losses in one type [of habitat] could be balanced by gains in others” (see footnote 1). However, as far as I can see, no such justification has been attempted by HS2 Ltd: plainly, a justification is needed why it has not been possible to do better for woodland and the other habitat types and that the grassland improvements truly compensate for this failing.

The position with hedgerows appears to be even worse. The Defra guidelines for developers emphasise the importance role that hedgerows play in our countryside; their contribution to biodiversity “by area” being “far greater than even the most biodiversity rich habitats” (see footnote 4). The guidelines stipulate that “loss will need to be offset with like for like habitat” and that only “planting new hedges” is an appropriate offset. Defra also requires offset calculations for hedgerows to be “measured in metres, rather than biodiversity units” (see footnote 5). Defra also stipulates that the condition of the lost hedgerow should be taken into account when determining the appropriate linear run of offset hedgerow to be created: if the condition of the lost hedge is poor then the offset should be at least the same length as the one lost; in the case of a hedgerow in moderate condition, then at least twice its length of offset is required; and, if the lost hedgerow was in good condition the offset should be at least three times its length (see footnote 6).

HS2 Phase 1 clearly fails to come anywhere near meeting the Defra guidelines for hedgerows. The HS2 Ltd offset calculation reveals that 444km will be lost and replaced by 397km: so, not even a one-for-one offset is being offered. If the assumption that I referred to in part 6 that a proportion of boundary hedgerows will not be reinstated is made, then the length of offset hedgerow expected should prudently be reduced by ten per cent to 358km, so the expected replacement ratio, by length, falls to 0.8 (see footnote 7).

I suggest that the above observations indicate that HS2 Ltd needs to do some serious rethinking about its policy towards offsetting, and should be looking at providing additional offsetting away from the bill limits. Notwithstanding, a total rethink of the policy is required anyway, in the light of the Promoter’s agreement, announced to the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee and reported in my blog Cutting out the old wood, part 1 (posted 10 Dec 2016), that ancient woodland and, I think, other irreplaceable habitat should be removed from the no net loss calculation and, instead there should be, according to Natural England (see footnote 8):

“Separate non-metric reporting for irreplaceable habitats and protected areas should include an explanation of how and where compensation is being provided and the considerations given to site-by-site compensation design, and should set that compensation in the context of legislation and national planning policy.”

It is to be hoped that setting the proposed compensation “in the context of legislation and national planning policy” will encompass an explanation of why the loss cannot be avoided or mitigated.

What Natural England hasn’t explained is the impact that the removal of irreplaceable habitat from biodiversity offset calculation will have upon the HS2 Ltd No net loss in biodiversity calculation document. This document can no longer claim to have the aim to demonstrate the achievement of “no net loss in biodiversity at a route-wide level” since some of the habitat loses and offset gains will no longer be included (see footnote 9). HS2 Ltd will no longer be able to claim that no net loss has been achieved, and the document will have no relevance.

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 4.1.2 in the report HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation, HS2 Ltd/Department for Transport, December 2015. The calculation reflects the design and mitigation including changes up to and including Additional Provision 4 and does not reflect the agreement to remove irreplaceable habitats from the analysis.
  2. See paragraph 3.10 of the publication Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services, Defra, August 2011.
  3. See Table 4 in the publication Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), March 2012.
  4. See paragraph 35 in Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers.
  5. See paragraph 36 in Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers.
  6. See paragraph 37 and Table 5 in Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers.
  7. See paragraphs 37 and Table 5 in Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers.
  8. See paragraph 3.21 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016.
  9. See paragraph 1.2.1 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation.

Compensation culture, part 6

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 5, posted on 4 Mar 2017).

The practical application of biodiversity offsetting is in its infancy in England (see footnote 1), and I believe that HS2 will be the first large-scale project to make use of the technique. Although I have referred to this technique from time to time in my blogs, I feel that a succinct explanation of how it is meant to work might assist, and have found the following in a government publication (see footnote 2):

“Using the biodiversity offsetting approach means that an offset provider [who may be the developer, or another party commissioned by the developer] delivers a quantifiable amount of biodiversity benefit to offset the loss of biodiversity resulting from a development. The losses and gains are measured in the same way, even if the habitats concerned are different. In the biodiversity offsetting pilot, the measurement is done in ‘biodiversity units’, which are the product of the size of an area, and the distinctiveness and condition of the habitat it comprises.”

If the developer is able to demonstrate, using a calculation metric (see footnote 3), that the total of biodiversity units gained is equal to, or greater than, the total lost, then this is evidence that the commitment to no net loss has been achieved. However, biodiversity offsetting should not be seen as a measure of first resort, because the same government publication dictates that it (see footnote 4):

“… will only be considered when the potential to avoid any damage, and mitigate any damage, has been fully considered.”

I think that it is fair to characterise biodiversity offsetting as a work in progress, rather than as a fully-developed policy. The report on the pilot schemes – written in 2014 but not published by the Government until last year – concludes that it is “apparent that the current system needs to be improved in some way if no-net-loss policy is to be met” (see footnote 5).

In response to representations by petitioners to the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee, HS2 Ltd published, in late 2015, the results of the biodiversity offset calculation for Phase 1 of HS2, based upon the information available then. This summary gives totals of biodiversity units lost and gained for the whole route, broken down into habitat types and further differentiated within those habitat types by “distinctiveness weighting”, allowing a comparison to be made of the way that different habitats will fare before and after HS2 (see footnote 6). In the document HS2 Ltd makes the point that “there is no statutory requirement” for it to publish this document and it “does not form part of the information the promoter is required to provide to support the hybrid Bill” (see footnote 7): clearly, it should be and this is a matter that the Government should address for subsequent phases of the project.

For reasons of its own convenience, HS2 Ltd has largely confined its offset planting proposals to land that is within the bill limits, which is land over which it can exercise compulsory purchase powers. In my view, this severely compromises the benefits that can be derived from the offsetting proposals, and adds to the land take from landowners already losing acreage to construction (see footnote 8).

The breakdown of the results of applying the biodiversity offsetting metric reveals that the biodiversity value of woodland and woodland/scrub habitats will be degraded by HS2 Phase 1, with an overall reduction in biodiversity value of around 10 per cent. Within this overall downgrading there will be a marked reduction in the quality of habitat (the “distinctiveness weighting”), with a 45 per cent reduction in the biodiversity value of the top two of the four identified grades of habitat (see footnote 9). The gains from offsetting will be largely in the lower two grades of habitat, with a 120 per cent increase in the biodiversity value (see footnote 10).

Grassland fares much better from HS2 Phase 1. The grassland in the highest distinctiveness weighting category that will be encountered on the route will see a biodiversity gain of 145 per cent, with biodiversity loss being restricted to the lowest category thereby generating a “trading-up” in quality (see footnote 11).

Hedgerow is also a loser to HS2 Phase 1, with a 13 per cent reduction in biodiversity value if all field boundaries are reinstated after construction. On a safer assumption that a proportion of these boundary hedgerows will not be reinstated, this expected reduction climbs to 21 per cent (see footnote 12).

HS2 Phase 1 will result in an increase in the length of watercourses, leading directly to an increase in biodiversity value of 6 per cent (see footnote 13).

The HS2 Ltd document lumps the remaining habitat types, including lowland fen, remnant heathland, swamp, ephemeral/short perennial habitat and standing water, into a single category of “other habitats”. Overall across all categories of distinctiveness weighting, there will be a decrease in biodiversity value of 32 per cent, with the losses concentrated at the highest grade, where there will be a total loss of biodiversity value resulting from the destruction of lowland fen, and the lowest grade due to loses of arable fields, improved grassland and areas of amenity grassland (see footnote 14).

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. Plans to set up a pilot scheme were announced in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, a 50-year vision for the natural environment, published in 2011. See paragraph 2.41 in the publication The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), June 2011. The Biodiversity Offsetting Pilot Scheme in England ran from April 2012 to March 2014.
  2. See paragraphs 10 and 11 in the publication Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), March 2012.
  3. Further information on the use of the metric may be found in paragraphs 1.4.1 to 1.4.4 of the publication HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results, HS2 Ltd, December 2015.
  4. See paragraph 5 in Biodiversity Offsetting Pilots: Guidance for developers.
  5. See the final paragraph of subsection 0.3 in the report Evaluation of the Biodiversity Offsetting Pilot Programme: Final Report Volume 1, Collingwood Environmental Planning Limited and The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), June 2014.
  6. See Table 3 and Table 4 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  7. See paragraph 1.2.3 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  8. For a fuller exposition of my views on this subject see my blog Not necessarily a good thing, part 2 (posted 15 Jul 2016).
  9. See paragraphs 3.2.6 to 3.2.8, 3.2.10 and Table 3 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  10. See paragraph 3.2.9 and Table 3 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  11. See paragraph 3.2.11 and Table 3 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  12. See paragraphs 3.3.1 to 3.3.3, Table 4 and Table 5 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  13. See paragraph 3.3.4 and Table 4 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results.
  14. See paragraphs 3.2.13 to 3.2.19 and Table 3 in HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss in biodiversity calculation: Methodology and results. I calculate the overall loss to be 2,809 biodiversity units (32 per cent), not 2,687 (31 per cent) as reported in paragraph 3.2.13.

 

 

Compensation culture, part 5

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 4, posted on 28 Feb 2017).

It is the opinion of the expert from Hillingdon Borough Council who I cited in part 4 that (see footnote 1):

“… if a high level plan or project scores as poorly [on sustainability] as HS2 has done, then either an alternative should be selected or considerable high level work should be undertaken to seek to turn the negatives into positives. This would include committing to the types of mitigations and policies necessary to ensure future implementation stages are sustainable.”

That sustainability assessment should be an ongoing process appears to be accepted by HS2 Ltd: we were promised that “further appraisal and assessment … would be integral to design development” and that “conclusions that emerge from the AoS [Appraisal of Sustainability] would feed the independent reporting of scheme performance and would assist the future consideration of mitigation to help overcome particular issues of concern” (see footnote 2).

This promise appears to be reinforced by the published Sustainability policy of HS2 Ltd that pledges that sustainability will be “integrated into [HS2 Ltd’s] culture, procedures and processes” and commits to:

“Openly reporting our progress in delivering the commitments we make on sustainability regularly and sharing what we learn.”

Whilst changes have been made to the design of Phase 1 since the Appraisal of Sustainability was published in 2011, and it would be churlish to think that no reduction in environmental impact has been achieved, there has been little disclosure of what part, if any, the desire to improve sustainability has had in motivating these changes. As far as I can see, HS2 Ltd has signally failed in its commitment to report progress in delivering sustainability, and there appears to have been no attempt to provide any updated assessment of the state of play since the analysis in Volume 2 of the Appraisal of Sustainability was compiled.

Of course, HS2 Ltd has not been short of suggestions for ways that the environmental impact of HS2 might be reduced, with many of the petitions that have been presented to Parliament requesting mitigation measures of some form or another. What I feel has been lacking, however, is a structured methodology for assessing these proposals for the contribution that they would make to the sustainability assessment of the project.

It is true that some of these proposals have been subjected by HS2 Ltd to, so called, Sift analysis, and the very best of these exercises, such as the report produced for the suggested northern extension of the Northolt tunnel, do follow the assessment methodology employed for Volume 2 of the Appraisal of Sustainability, whereas others are less structured. Notwithstanding, the conclusions reached appear to be fairly arbitrary and are strongly biased towards the economic, timescale and operational considerations. So, for example, the conclusion of the Northolt tunnel Sift analysis report is that, despite acknowledging that extending the tunnel would “avoid the majority of the above ground impacts” (see footnote 3):

“… it is concluded that the Proposed Scheme as set out in the hybrid Bill is preferred, on the grounds of cost, programme implications, construction safety and traffic effects as a result of the removal of tunnel excavated material.”

I think that it is fair to say that this typifies the response that most petitioners faced: it appears that, in the vast majority of cases, the Government was not prepared to see the cost of HS2 rise, or its implementation timescales increase, in the cause of reducing its environmental impacts – and Heaven forbid that anything be done that might conceivably reduce operational efficiency, such as lowering the speed of operation.

And yet many of the proposals put forward by petitioners would have avoided biodiversity loss in the first place – always the preferred course – and, yes, most of these would have come at a cost to the HS2 project. It is, I suggest, a moot point whether the cost of avoiding loss of habitat constitutes a justification for allowing that loss to take place; after all the principle of “the polluter pays” seems equitable and is, I believe, generally accepted. When it is, as is the case for the HS2 project, the taxpayer who is required to pick up the tab, then that additional cost could be regarded as an environmental subsidy, similar to the payments paid to farmers for environmental stewardship.

This is not to say that any price necessary to avoid habitat loss should be paid, but the problem appears to be that there are no clear guidelines to enable the judgement to be made of when the additional costs of avoiding habitat damage should be borne. It was clear that such judgements were being made by the Commons HS2 Select Committee without any obvious reference to a framework to guide their decision making.

When I gave evidence to the HS2 Phase 1 Commons Select Committee I raised a case in point (see footnote 4). I cited an example where HS2 Ltd had sanctioned a multi-million pound sum to employ a retained cutting to mitigate the damage to ancient woodland, but had ruled out the higher expenditure involved in a bored tunnel that would avoid the damage altogether; a position that was not queried by the Select Committee. I complained that the criteria that supported this decision had not been made clear; and remain unexplained to this day.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 13.7 of Appendix 13 (Assessment of Sustainability Overview) to 51m Response to HS2 Consultation, Ian Thynne for the 51m consortium of Local Authorities, July 2011.
  2. See paragraph 4.1.1 of the publication HS2 London to the West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability, Main Report Volume 1, Booz & Co and Temple for HS2 Ltd, February 2011.
  3. See paragraph 1.1.8 in the document Proposal for Northern Extension of Northolt Tunnel SIFT Report, HS2 Ltd, March 2015.
  4. See paragraphs 261 and 262 in the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20thJanuary 2015.