SEA views, part 3

(… continued from SEA views, part 2, posted on 12 Jun 2014).

So what conclusions did the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee reach on the matter of the failure to carry out a strategic environmental assessment for HS2? The Committee’s thoughts are set out in paragraphs 71 to 80 of its report HS2 and the environment, and the implications on the way that the Hybrid Bill Select Committee carries out its business are discussed in the section that runs from paragraph 81 to paragraph 86.

In its exposition the Committee explains that concerns about the potential environmental impacts of major projects are meant to be addressed through “a framework of environmental assessments, as required by EU directives” (paragraph 71). These are identified in the report as a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). A helpful summary of the difference between the two is provided in paragraph 72 of the Committee’s report:

“An SEA directive … requires that the Government accounts for the way in which the environmental aspects of the proposal are considered when it is adopted. It can potentially influence the choice of ‘strategic alternatives’. An EIA, on the other hand, typically coming after an SEA, should identify the environmental impact of a particular project, but would not be used to make strategic choices or choose between strategic alternatives.”

Paragraph 73 points out another essential difference between SEA and EIA:

“An SEA requires the monitoring of significant environmental effects and implementation plans in order to identify unforeseen issues and implement appropriate remedies. The EIA Directive does not require such monitoring, although this can be imposed through planning or licensing conditions introduced through the planning consent process.”

So the SEA does not only seek to provide protection of the environment during the planning phase of a project, but strives to maintain safeguards throughout the project implementation.

Whilst the Committee confirms for us that the Common’s private business Standing Order 27A “requires a hybrid bill to meet the requirements of the EIA Directive” (paragraph 75), it reports that the UK Supreme Court ruled that “an SEA was not required” for HS2 (paragraph 78).

However, in two footnotes on page 33 of the report, the Committee advises that proposed amendments to the EIA Directive that are currently under consideration will add a requirement for monitoring, and “include the requirement to assess reasonable alternatives, similar to the requirement in the SEA Directive”. These moves to beef up the EIA Directive would appear to indicate that the environmental protection offered by it is currently inadequate and, surely, underlines that it is totally inexcusable that a project with the level of environmental impact of HS2 can escape SEA. This particularly rankles with me as I am sure that the choice of route for HS2, which clearly has been made on consideration of economic rather than environmental factors, would be difficult to justify in any SEA analysis in comparison with some of the alternatives that have been identified.

Unfortunately the Committee fails to comment directly in the report on the possible implications for the environmental effects from the HS2 project of the exemption from satisfying the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. However, it is fairly obvious that the Committee does not regard this as a good thing for the environment, which is perhaps best illustrated by the recommendation set out in paragraph 84:

“In the absence of a formal SEA process for HS2, it is incumbent on the House to keep the scope of the continuing environmental assessment process sufficiently broad, within the ‘principles’ of the Hybrid Bill, to allow full consideration of the environmental impacts of options still available within a project described in the Hybrid Bill as ‘a high speed railway between London and the West Midlands’.”

The Committee also maintains, in paragraph 86, that it is “important” that:

“…the House is able to demonstrate that it has at least fully followed the purposes and processes, to address environmental risks and to prevent or mitigate them, that would be expected of any other development of this scale.”

So what the Committee appears to be saying is that Parliament should be as rigorous and wide-ranging in its approach as we would expect from a public planning inquiry carried out by the Planning Inspectorate. In this I feel that the Committee is being totally unrealistic. The Members of the Hybrid Bill Select Committee, however well-intentioned they may be, are not experienced, professionally-qualified planning inspectors. Neither, in view of party politics and the ever-present influence of the whips, can they truly claim the level of independence and detachment attained by the Planning Inspectorate.

There is also the problem of the sheer workload pressure on the six Members of Parliament who will be hearing petitions. The downright slog of working through nearly two thousands of them comes as an addition to their normal constituency and parliamentary duties. I am sure that they will all approach the task conscientiously, but it is a big ask. An account of a speech given by HS2 Ltd’s Head of Property Acquisitions – Phase 2 is already ringing alarm bells. It appears from this report of what was said that HS2 Ltd is anticipating that the Hybrid Bill Select Committee will rattle through petitions at the rate of eight per sitting day. If the Committee accedes to this expectation it will surely be impossible for them to demonstrate that the standards deemed necessary by the Environmental Audit Committee have been attained.

(To be continued …)

PS: Should you wish to find out more about the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive you may find the Practical Guide that was published by the previous government helpful.



6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Les Fawcett on June 16, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Peter, I’m sorry that I can’t agree with “…the choice of route for HS2, which clearly has been made on consideration of economic rather than environmental factors…”. The choice of route was made by conviction, i.e. the controlling minds decided the route they fancied then used every means of deflecting all the evidence that it was not the best route nor even a logical one. If they were driven by purely economical considerations they would not have chose their route. If they were driven by purely environmental considerations they would not have chosen their route.This is proven by the alternative High Speed UK route that outperforms HS2 on cost AND on environmental performance, i.e. it’s cheaper and less damaging. Many objectors cling to the belief that the existing network can be tweaked over and over to meet future demand, but the reality is that with an increasing population, we will almost certainly need new tracks north from London if we are to continue to function as a wealthy country. Parliament has been manipulated to agree to build HS2. Only the ballot box can wake them up to the truth.


    • I think that “economic” was probably the wrong word Les and has led to a misunderstanding. What I was getting at was that the BCR calculation relies heavily upon the alleged benefits of journey time saving and that the business case would have been severly damaged by chosing a route between London and the West Midlands that added a couple of minutes, or so, to the travel time. Whilst there were other factors that led to this route, such as the perceived need to serve Heathrow, my understanding of what justicications I have seen from HS2 Ltd is that travel time was a paramount factor in the decision. Of course, now that we have the “given” route, increases in the cost of construction for that route are being used as an argument not to adopt design changes that HS2 Ltd has admitted have a lower environmental impact, such as the many suggestions that have been put forward by local communities.


      • Posted by Les Fawcett on June 16, 2014 at 12:06 pm

        Yes, a slower journey time would reduce the apparent benefits of HS2, but HSUK is faster from London to Birmingham, using the same max speed (360km/h) on a slightly longer route. The reason is that HSUK does not need the stop at Old Oak Common – the feature of HS2 that has forced the route so far west that it has to cross the widest part of the Chilterns with far too much tunnel . HS2 offers an average reduction in rail journey times of 5% while HSUK offers 40% by having 11 times as many connections between towns and cities. As for Heathrow, there was some muddled notion that passing near the airport was a jolly good idea, but 5 years after HS2L were commissioned to design a new railway, they have no plan to connect it to H’row, or to HS1, and they have abandoned their plans for Euston twice. HS2 is in tatters now because the wrong decisions were made at the outset. The arguments that are raging about the detailed design would not be happening if the right route had been adopted. As Cheryl Gillan MP said, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

  2. Posted by chriseaglen on June 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    The choices of Old Oak Common and Calvert for the IMD seem the main route anchors. The rest is straight lines and french curves. The AOS was not an EIA and the process did not attempt SEA. The Planning Inspectorate said in letters with their surrogates all is Delegated to HS2. It seems they under value their competence or simply wanted out. A Great British mistaken route selection process. Are you very sure that the Supreme Court has deemed the SEA not necessary, or did they say that the MPs may make decisions in the future including the application of a SEA. There has not been an EIA as it is intended but a measure of the impacts done. The EIA is a tool to reduce impacts rather than to apply after damaging decisions have been taken. EIA work is to help iterate on what is possible to reduce impacts not to explain these. SEAs are being undertaken currently by many public authorities in the UK.


    • I agree with most of what you say Chris. The interpretation of what the Supreme Court said about SEA in my blog was the EAC’s (directly quoted from the “HS2 and the environment” report), not mine. However, it also possible to place the interpretation that the Supreme Court effectively said, “Parliament may do whatever it wishes”. Notwithstanding, I do not think that there is any prospect of Parliament now saying, “Hold on, we had better carry out a SEA”; this is not specified in the Commons Private Bill Standing Orders and the procedures that the consideration of the hybrid Bill must now follow do not appear to allow for a break to carry out SEA. In my view, the analysis by HS2 Action Alliance that I quoted in “SEA views, part 2” is correct; aside from the current pending judicial review on safeguarding and putting the Supreme Court decision to the test of whether it conforms with EU Law and the Aarhus Convention, if we want to challenge HS2 further under UK environmental Law we will have to wait until the hybrid Bill has completed its passage through Parliament. Even then, it will probably be non-compliance with the EIA Directive rather than SEAD that is the basis of any challenge.


  3. Posted by chriseaglen on June 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Thank you. Legal advice is that a post Royal Assent legal challenge if possible in the 6 weeks after that date on the ground of evidence collectible from some of the petitions and the treatments of people and businesses. Part of the challenge being if there is a failure not to have undertaken an or several SEAs. The legal challenge requiring preparation through 2014 and 2015. There are several other Directives being considered. There will then be more information on details of the scheme as now emerging to demonstrate how little HS2 had to assess the 2009 to 2012/13 period of development. What the Supreme Court and JRs obtained were statements that the AOS was not an SEA. The other main point that you advise is the capitulation of the Planning Inspectorate processes and procedures to the HS2 with limited competencies at that time and now the MPs who as you suggest will not have the time or resources to do a proper job. As the UK gets itself deeper into the Chinese relationship on expectations it is possible that green lights now replace the red and amber lights.

    HS2 is a poor route with insufficient capacity for a reliable all season railway. It is not going to raise the fare box returns from commuter numbers as it passes through unpopulated areas and does not stop.


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