Usel ES s, part 3

(… continued from Usel ES s, part 2, posted on 23 Nov 2014).

The second chartered environmentalist who appeared before the HS2 Select Committee in the second half of October  2014, and who expressed doubts about the quality of the environmental work that HS2 Ltd has carried out, was David Lowe, Principal County Ecologist for Warwickshire County Council (see footnote). Mr Lowe’s evidence was confined to the consideration of only one of the ten issues that had been identified by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, and which I listed in part 1 of this blog series; that issue is the failure of HS2 Ltd to employ connectivity mapping to determine the best mitigation solutions.

Mr Lowe presented evidence that was specific to his own county of Warwickshire, although his observations clearly had implications for all surface route sections of HS2. He told the Select Committee that “Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull has a fantastic habitat database”. He described it as “the best in Europe” and “acknowledged in Europe in best practice”. The data is stored on a computer geographic information system (GIS), enabling the impacts of environmental changes, such as HS2, to be analysed.

I visited Mr Lowe at his Warwick office about eighteen months ago to see the system in action and I was very impressed with it and Mr Lowe; Warwickshire is fortunate to have this resource and Mr Lowe’s services.

The basis of Mr Lowe’s analysis is that HS2 will present an impediment to the free movement of animals that is essential for a healthy ecology, except where it is carried on viaduct, allowing passage under the line, or where specific measures are taken to allow the free passage of animals, such as underpasses and green bridges.

Mr Lowe explained to the Committee that habitat fragmentation resulting from HS2 would lower the habitat connectivity and, consequentially, the bio-diversity richness, unless adequate steps were taken to restore wildlife corridors severed by HS2. He described how he had complied with the European standard of best practice, Cost Action 341, and employed modelling developed by the University of York to study the impact of fragmentation effects inherent in the current design for HS2 and identify the resulting impediments to animal movement.

Mr Lowe told the Committee that there was a “motto” in Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull that “good data, with good interpretation, makes for good decision making”. He also confirmed to the Committee what Staffordshire Wildlife Trust had told them a few days earlier; HS2 Ltd had not used connectivity mapping in its own analysis.

Warwickshire connectivity map (Source: Warwickshire County Council)

Warwickshire connectivity map (Source: Warwickshire County Council)

He presented the results of his connectivity mapping analysis in the form of the above map, which shows species movements in Warwickshire. The green arrows indicate what Mr Lowe called “a least passage”, which he explained is “the easiest way for those species to get to woodland to woodland to woodland in Warwickshire”. It is clear that the proposed route of HS2 severs a number of these least passage routes, and six “key locations”, where the design of HS2 presents a barrier, are labelled on the map. Mr Lowe stressed that, on the basis of his analysis, “it’s really important that some adequate structure is put in place, to maintain that functionality in the landscape” at these key locations.

But the work commissioned by Mr Lowe’s employers had gone even further than this, in that the Council has made proposals for the mitigation that is necessary at each of the key locations, based upon a report prepared for the Deer Commission of Scotland, which Mr Lowe described as “the best practice we have come across”. Applying what Mr Lowe described as a “pragmatic and reasonable” approach, the Council has made recommendations for design changes at each of the six locations, ranging from improving proposed green bridges, adding green features to proposed bridges and making short sections of cutting into green tunnels.

Now you might have thought that HS2 Ltd would be grateful for this additional input to its environmental assessment from a respected source, using a powerful analysis tool, and all for free. Well, if you did think that you couldn’t be more wrong.

The reaction of the promoter’s lead counsel, Tim Mould QC, was to attempt, very unwisely in my view, to discredit the work that had been done by Mr Lowe. His witness, Peter Miller, took a different tack. He confirmed that HS2 Ltd had not employed connectivity mapping in its environmental assessment, describing it a “quite a new technique that has been around for a few years” and “not a widely established technique” – this rather begs the question of just how long a powerful and potentially valuable technique such as connectivity mapping has to have been around before HS2 Ltd would consider using it.

What I find really worrying is that Mr Miller and his employers appear to be content to reject out of hand some careful work that has shown the environmental mitigation being offered for HS2 to be, in the words of Nathalie Lieven QC summing up for the Council, “completely inadequate”.

Footnote: Mr Lowe’s evidence starts at paragraph 489 in the transcript for the morning session of Tuesday 28th October 2014 and at about 12.16pm in the video. It continues into the afternoon session: transcript and video. Mr Lowe’s visual evidence covers pages 55 to 76 of the WCC slides.

Important Note: The documents from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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