Giving due consideration, part 4

(… continued from Giving due consideration, part 3, posted on 10 Aug 2015).

I concluded part 3 by asking how the views of HS2 Ltd and the Chilterns Conservation Board on the impacts that HS2 would have on the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) could be so diametrically opposed. I’m afraid that my jaundiced opinion is that it suits HS2 Ltd to understate the impacts of HS2 in order to avoid having to implement more operationally inconvenient and expensive design solutions. Support that this notion may have at least a germ of truth in it comes from no less an authority than HS2 Ltd’s Head of Environment and Planning, Peter Miller. Asked by Timothy Straker QC whether the view of Natural England that “an extended bored tunnel could provide the most effective means of mitigating the landscape and visual effects on the AONB” was an “accurate statement”, Mr Miller told the HS2 Select Committee (see footnote 1):

“In the way that they come at it, yes. They are not considering the nature of the railway, and our considerations are all about building the railway but yes, you are right.”

Indeed, much time has been devoted by the Committee and petitioners to the question of how the negative impacts of HS2 on the AONB should be appraised (see footnote 2). Petitioners from the Chilterns have generally favoured a cost benefit approach, in which a monetary value is ascribed to the identified impacts to be offset against the costs of avoiding those impacts. Whilst one witness admitted that this approach means that “[a]ssumptions are needed and [are] critical and judgment may differ on what comes out of it”, the inherent subjectivity is, at least, evidence-based and, once the underlying assumptions have been made, the process is entirely objective (see footnote 3).

Mr Mould told the committee that the Promoter holds the view that “there are some things that are better assessed, and more effectively assessed, through a qualitative approach, rather than simply seeking to simply (sic) apply a monetary value, which is, even if it is superficially attractive, very quickly it is exposed as being spurious, as a reliable basis for costing or evaluation”.

This “qualitative” approach preferred by the Promoter is, of course, entirely subjective, and those of us who have been presented with a Sift analysis by HS2 Ltd in response to suggestions to reduce the impact of HS2 on our area will be familiar with how it works: environmental impacts are acknowledged, that adopting the alternative that is proposed will alleviate these impacts and be less environmentally damaging is often willingly admitted, yet almost invariably the conclusion is drawn that the proposal would not be cost effective and the Promoter’s design should be retained. It is difficult not to view this process as failing to serve the interests of the environment and being, as Mr Miller admitted, “all about building the railway”.

So, despite Mr Mould’s spirited defence of his client’s approach to protecting the environment, I feel that he has failed to demonstrate that the requirements of NPPF paragraph 116 have, or will be, satisfied by the HS2 planning processes. These concerns are not restricted to the AONB either; I have previously argued that the process has not satisfied the test set out in NPPF paragraph 118 that any loss of ancient woodland or veteran trees should be clearly outweighed by “the need for, and benefits of, the development” (see footnote 4).

My strongly-held opinion is that the interests of our environment demand an urgent review of the hybrid bill procedure. Whilst some minor amendments that appear to be a gesture towards the public consultation provisions of the Aarhus Convention were made to Commons Standing Orders in advance of, and in preparation for, the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill being introduced into Parliament, these were really only tinkering around the shortcomings of the procedures. I would like to see at least the following changes made:

  • That it should be a requirement that a strategic environmental assessment be deposited with Parliament alongside the environmental statement.
  • That instructions to a select committee sitting on the bill should require that committee to determine compliance with the requirements of the NPPF.
  • That for the purposes of complying with the requirements of the NPPF the select committee should not assume that the second reading conveys any significance with regards to the national interest or the need for a development.
  • That instructions to a select committee should not restrict it from considering the benefits of route alternatives that lie outside of the geographical bill limits, or which rely upon alternative ways of meeting the objectives of a project.
  • That it should be mandatory for the select committee to seek the advice of independent experts to resolve any significant differences that arise in expert testimony presented by the parties.
  • That consideration should be given to setting mandatory procedures to allow the costs and benefits of alternatives to be assessed.

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraphs 20 and 21 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Wednesday, 15th July 2015.
  2. For an example refer to the evidence given by Mr Richard Hindle on behalf of Chiltern Ridges HS2 Action Group and Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside. His evidence is recorded from paragraph 367 of the transcript of the public session held by the HS2 Select Committee on the afternoon of Monday 20thJuly 2015 and may be viewed from 16:26 hrs in the video.
  3. This observation was made by Mr Hindle and is recorded in paragraph 379 in the transcript of the afternoon session of the HS2 Select Committee held on Monday, 20thJuly 2015.
  4. See my blog A truth universally acknowledged (posted 3 Nov 2014).

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog are taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are 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.

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