Wheeling out the big guns

The natural environment and wildlife, part 4

“An efficient, sustainable transport system is vital to our prosperity and well-being. Reducing the damaging impact of travel on the environment and local communities by shifting journeys from road and air to rail needs to be a key priority. High Speed Rail is one option for increasing rail capacity and connectivity.”

This could almost be an extract from one of Philip Hammond’s speeches, but it isn’t; it is the first paragraph of the preamble to a document that has been jointly issued by a powerful alliance of ten respected organisations that cover environmental, heritage, countryside, legal and wildlife issues. They have called this document The Right Lines Charter: A Charter for doing High Speed Rail well (here).

The ten organisations are: Campaign for Better Transport, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Chiltern Society, Civic Voice, Environmental Law Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace UK, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust. So a powerful alliance indeed!

Any good news for the Transport Secretary ends after the first paragraph of The Right Lines Charter. The document sets out four principles that should apply to “the process and particular proposals” for high speed rail and states emphatically that:

“The Government’s High Speed Rail consultation and detailed HS2 proposals are unsound at present and fall well short of these principles.”

So what are these four principles, why have the ten organisations given the thumbs down to HS2 and what have representatives of some of the organisations said about matters covered by the Charter (quotes have been taken from the report here)?

Principle 1 requires high speed rail proposals to be set in the context of a clear long-term transport strategy. The document gives examples of objectives that might be included within such a strategy as: reducing the need to travel, improving rail capacity and connectivity throughout the country, reducing regional economic disparities and ending dependence on oil. The verdict is that the Government’s current high speed rail proposals are, at present, “not part of any comprehensive long term transport strategy or nationally agreed priorities”.

The problem of rising carbon emissions is highlighted by the document and the need to reduce these significantly in order to meet our climate change commitments. “High Speed Rail” it says “needs to be planned and justified as a strategic element of a sustainable, near zero carbon transport system”. So “broadly carbon neutral” doesn’t really pass muster, Mr Hammond.

Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, commented:

“Carbon emissions from UK transport must be urgently cut – but the current High Speed Rail proposals will do little, if anything, to help. The majority of journeys are relatively short, so the Government’s top priority should be to cut emissions from these trips. This means action to encourage greener travel and measures to reduce the need to travel for work or essential services.”

Principle 2 requires major infrastructure proposals to be comprehensively tested against different scenarios in order to “help identify the best solutions for genuinely furthering sustainable development”. The document comments that the attempt by the Government to predict the impacts of HS2 accurately over a 75 year timescale has “led to the methodology for assessing HS2’s benefits being seriously called into question”. The document also takes the Government to task for the very limited weight that has been given to assessing the impacts on landscapes, heritage, habitats and the like in making the business case for HS2.

Mike Overall, Vice-Chairman of the Chiltern Society, had this to say:

“The current HS2 proposals stem from a badly conceived and highly constrained remit, resulting in little regard being given to options that would avoid harming some of England’s finest landscapes. A wholly objective balancing between the wider economic benefits claimed for High Speed Rail and the impact of specific proposals on the environment can not be achieved in the absence of a comprehensive framework of national transportation strategies that address broader future sustainability issues.”

The need to test the relative sustainability of genuinely different scenarios was a matter that I first raised in my blog of 18 Mar. I said then:

“Alternatives must be genuinely and radically different ways of achieving the desired economic aims, even if the economic advantages of alternatives are judged to be less. Solutions that are just tinkering with the details of a single option are no substitute for genuine alternatives. It should be part of the sustainability appraisal to weigh the different economic, social and environmental pros and cons of each alternative.”

Principle 3 is simple: it requires early public involvement in the development of major infrastructure proposals. The Charter requires that “the public should be able to have their say at a time when they can still make a difference” and advises that this is an express requirement of the Aarhus Convention.

Debbie Tripley, Chief Executive of the Environmental Law Foundation, said about this principle:

“There is always a tipping point when major projects like HS2 become controversial and that is when people see that there is a lack of fairness in the decision making process. The Aarhus Convention requires the public to be consulted when all options are open and effective participation can take place. The public should be given the opportunity to participate on all aspects of the HS2 project and to have a real say on all the issues, both environmental and strategic.”

There is clearly considerable doubt amongst detractors from HS2 that the current public consultation will have any real impact on the decision making process; this fear has been reinforced by statements made by both the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister that indicate that the decision to go ahead with HS2 may have already been made.

Principle 4 requires HS2 to be “designed from the start to avoid significant adverse impacts on the natural environment, cultural heritage and local communities (including biodiversity, landscape, tranquillity and access) during construction and operation”. The document points out that setting inflexible objectives, such as the 400 kph top speed, and preconceived requirements, such as interchange stations at airports, have limited the route options that have been considered. It goes on to say:

“Although mitigation can reduce adverse impacts, it is not as good as avoiding impacts in the first place. Specifications and design speed should not be rigidly fixed in advance but be shaped by the opportunities to minimise impact and maximise benefit. This requires respecting environmental limits and a strategic approach to reducing impacts by prioritising avoidance over mitigation, with compensation being the option of last resort.”

In the words of Nikki Williams, Head of Campaigning at the Woodland Trust:

“Although we support moves towards green transport, the proposed route would destroy or irrevocably damage ancient woodland, the UK’s richest wildlife habitat that is literally irreplaceable. Government plans to compensate by planting 2 million trees will not recompense this loss of our rarest habitats. Environmental impact should be valued equally with journey times and costs when assessing new transport options.”

PS: Since the blog was written the number of signatories to the Charter has risen to thirteen; the additional three supporters are Railfuture, Ramblers and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.


2 responses to this post.

  1. The most sustainable transport policy of all is to learn to travel less – whatever form of transport you generally use. We now have the technology, through high-speed broadband, video conferencing and live video streaming, to travel far less than we have done in the past. It’s a revolution in the way we live and work that’s only just beginning. There may have been a case for high-speed rail in the UK 40 years ago, but not now. HS2 is the wrong technology at the wrong time.


    • Hi Robin. I couldn’t agree with you more. For the sake of our children and the succeeding generations we really must wise up – the way we live at the moment is just not sustainable and travel is one area where we all have to rethink. In my blog “Am I in the right place?” (27 Apr) I commented, somewhat sceptically, on the “Alternatives to Travel” initiative by the Department for Transport. The public consultation for “Alternatives to Travel” closed at the end of May and it has just been announced that JMP Consultants Ltd has been appointed by the DfT to assist public sector organisations introduce new measures that encourage a reduction in work-related travel. So a small step has been taken in the right direction, for which I suppose we should be grateful.

      However what I called in my earlier blog an “absurd situation” still remains within the DfT. Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, is promoting “Alternatives to Travel” whilst his boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, is enthusiastically supporting the HS2 proposal, which has a business plan that requires a very substantial increase in travelling punters in order for it to make any sense at all.


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