SEA views, part 1

In my blog The environment was the real loser, part 2 (posted 27 Jan 2014) I lamented that the HS2 project, which I described as “the most destructive proposal of all”, had been able, by ignoring the requirements of the EU Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, to “simply by-pass an essential stage of environmental checking”. It appears that I am not the only person who is troubled by this; the matter appeared to be uppermost in the mind of Joan Walley MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, when she opened the questioning of witnesses invited the oral evidence session of the Committee that took place on the afternoon of Wednesday 26th March 2014 (video).

So it was that, once the introductions and an opening statement by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Robert Goodwill MP, had been dispensed with, Ms Walley got straight on to this topic (refer to Q100 in the transcript).

“Perhaps our starting point is that we are going to be having a Hybrid Bill and we are very clear that Strategic Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Assessments are not legally required under the House’s Standing Orders and the Hybrid Bill procedure. Therefore, the question to ask is: how much of the work that has been done on the Environmental Statement covers what would have been required had the House been in the position to carry out to the letter of the law the Strategic Environmental Impact Assessments that would normally be required on a scheme of this kind?”

I think that we all know that, if you want a straight answer to a straight question, you really shouldn’t ask a politician, even if, like Ms Walley, you happen to be a politician yourself. It was no surprise, therefore, that the Minister lavished a few hundred words in response to this question, none of which appeared to be designed to address the substance of Ms Walley’s concern. So it was that Mr Goodwill appeared anxious to boast to us that the environmental impacts of HS2 had been lessened by “investing in tunnelling, in cuttings and in other environmental mitigation”. He also used the occasion to make the accusations about “vexatious” petitioners attempting to “gum up the works” that I complained about in my blog Enemies of the people, part 2 (posted 11 May 2014). However, when it came to “how the Committee deals with this when it gets into the Hybrid Bill Committee” he did not feel that this was something that he, as a Minister, could “get involved with” and that “it is up to the Committee themselves to order their business”. Even in this most direct part of his “answer” he was failing to address Ms Walley’s question; what she had asked him referred to the process that had been used for the work done up to now, not what should happen next.

However, Ms Walley appears to have the powers of persistence and stubbornness that are essential attributes, I would have thought, for someone charged with the task of chairing a House of Commons Select Committee. She rephrased her question (Q102):

“I am still not exactly clear how the work that is included in [the Environmental Statement] has differentiated between what would be expected of a strategic nature, i.e. should the route be here or should it be there? Aspects of that strategic nature as opposed to when you start to dig down on the very specific environmental impacts, which are two different things.”

Presumably sensing that the Minister would not be too comfortable with persistent questioning on a subject that he may not be willing or able to address, Peter Miller stepped in to take over the burden from his political master. As Head of Environment and Planning for HS2 Ltd, Mr Miller surely understood what Ms Walley was getting at. Clearly he did, but he was only prepared to offer the same old argument that we had heard in the High Court that the Appraisal of Sustainability had included the “sort of things that you would see through SEA” – clearly this did not satisfy Ms Walley (Q103):

“The list of things that you said that you looked at, where environment was included as one of them, is not quite the same thing as having a Strategic Environmental Assessment where you look at it from the perspective of the environment in its totality, is it?”

Mr Miller did, at this point, admit that what had been carried out in the preparation of the Appraisal of Sustainability was not “an SEA process itself”, but maintained the view that “the coverage of the Appraisal of Sustainability was comprehensive and what we were looking at were the range of sustainability issues that you would other see through SEA”.

This appeared to result in an agreement to differ and the questioning moved on to consider what impact Sir David Higgins’ changes might have on what Ms Walley described as the “wider Environmental Strategic Assessment”. However, the topic obviously remained at the forefront of Ms Walley’s mind, and she mentioned the word “strategic” a number of times in her subsequent questioning (refer to Q105, Q106 and Q111).

(To be continued …)


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on June 8, 2014 at 7:49 am

    You should not ask a technical question straight or otherwise. The PAC ping pong match with MPA CEO was an example of the UK omnishambles between lay and I’ve been a minister people about functions and delivery and Permanent Secretarys and Ministers demonstrated the Laisez Faire British have long lost the capabilities. Goodwill is hardly competent to deliver an SEA for HS2 it cant be done and never could be it is too large and difficult to be one process. The project would have to be subdivided into manageable sections.

    People may go back to the demise of ICL and the other defunct attempts. Putting the railway together took more than the British could provide alone. The Eurofighter was cross border not British.

    A cutting is far from an environmental mitigation. It is also a future section for leaves on the line mega problems slowing the trains down to autumn running speeds and separation distances and one engineer in HS2 knows that very well as that group with a far from experienced Permanent Secretary fumbles and fudges the issues.

    It would be interesting to know who was the one or two Minsters who took half a day or a day briefing on delivery.

    The UK is not in a fit state to undertake large projects such as HS2 through the MPs and Civil Servants and the SEA would be such a function to not be undertaken well by a Select Committee steered approach let alone a managed one.

    Britain is playing games in costly and likely wasteful areas and needs to stop this charade that people are currently contributing to by thinking of this as being repairable.

    ….should the route be here or should it be there…. : Which route and for what purpose(s). Town and village development opportunities, intercity travel for 20 minute saving in all seasons but Autumn and Winter on a wet or frosty day.

    …..Strategic Environmental Assessment where you look at it from the perspective of the environment in its totality, is it No it is not it is where options are looked at too. A much wider requirement than the environmental totality.

    What a total mess of wasted distraction and social nudging whilst as Rt Hon Bercow laments the roads and other strategic areas are not sustainable and HS2 will do little even to change the north south divide across Buckinghamshire let alone between London and Birmingham or between Lancashire and Yorkshire and the South.

    Suggest the ineffectiveness of select committees and the fact a few MPs can do whatever they want is examined as a threat to the British ways of life and development please.

    AOS was a document and the 90 route section 8 options of routes approaches where the beginning of this omishambles which has prevented the UK resolve more pressing projects in the past Coalition period which Lord Gus O’Donnell set up and left sharply.


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