Compensation culture, part 5

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 4, posted on 28 Feb 2017).

It is the opinion of the expert from Hillingdon Borough Council who I cited in part 4 that (see footnote 1):

“… if a high level plan or project scores as poorly [on sustainability] as HS2 has done, then either an alternative should be selected or considerable high level work should be undertaken to seek to turn the negatives into positives. This would include committing to the types of mitigations and policies necessary to ensure future implementation stages are sustainable.”

That sustainability assessment should be an ongoing process appears to be accepted by HS2 Ltd: we were promised that “further appraisal and assessment … would be integral to design development” and that “conclusions that emerge from the AoS [Appraisal of Sustainability] would feed the independent reporting of scheme performance and would assist the future consideration of mitigation to help overcome particular issues of concern” (see footnote 2).

This promise appears to be reinforced by the published Sustainability policy of HS2 Ltd that pledges that sustainability will be “integrated into [HS2 Ltd’s] culture, procedures and processes” and commits to:

“Openly reporting our progress in delivering the commitments we make on sustainability regularly and sharing what we learn.”

Whilst changes have been made to the design of Phase 1 since the Appraisal of Sustainability was published in 2011, and it would be churlish to think that no reduction in environmental impact has been achieved, there has been little disclosure of what part, if any, the desire to improve sustainability has had in motivating these changes. As far as I can see, HS2 Ltd has signally failed in its commitment to report progress in delivering sustainability, and there appears to have been no attempt to provide any updated assessment of the state of play since the analysis in Volume 2 of the Appraisal of Sustainability was compiled.

Of course, HS2 Ltd has not been short of suggestions for ways that the environmental impact of HS2 might be reduced, with many of the petitions that have been presented to Parliament requesting mitigation measures of some form or another. What I feel has been lacking, however, is a structured methodology for assessing these proposals for the contribution that they would make to the sustainability assessment of the project.

It is true that some of these proposals have been subjected by HS2 Ltd to, so called, Sift analysis, and the very best of these exercises, such as the report produced for the suggested northern extension of the Northolt tunnel, do follow the assessment methodology employed for Volume 2 of the Appraisal of Sustainability, whereas others are less structured. Notwithstanding, the conclusions reached appear to be fairly arbitrary and are strongly biased towards the economic, timescale and operational considerations. So, for example, the conclusion of the Northolt tunnel Sift analysis report is that, despite acknowledging that extending the tunnel would “avoid the majority of the above ground impacts” (see footnote 3):

“… it is concluded that the Proposed Scheme as set out in the hybrid Bill is preferred, on the grounds of cost, programme implications, construction safety and traffic effects as a result of the removal of tunnel excavated material.”

I think that it is fair to say that this typifies the response that most petitioners faced: it appears that, in the vast majority of cases, the Government was not prepared to see the cost of HS2 rise, or its implementation timescales increase, in the cause of reducing its environmental impacts – and Heaven forbid that anything be done that might conceivably reduce operational efficiency, such as lowering the speed of operation.

And yet many of the proposals put forward by petitioners would have avoided biodiversity loss in the first place – always the preferred course – and, yes, most of these would have come at a cost to the HS2 project. It is, I suggest, a moot point whether the cost of avoiding loss of habitat constitutes a justification for allowing that loss to take place; after all the principle of “the polluter pays” seems equitable and is, I believe, generally accepted. When it is, as is the case for the HS2 project, the taxpayer who is required to pick up the tab, then that additional cost could be regarded as an environmental subsidy, similar to the payments paid to farmers for environmental stewardship.

This is not to say that any price necessary to avoid habitat loss should be paid, but the problem appears to be that there are no clear guidelines to enable the judgement to be made of when the additional costs of avoiding habitat damage should be borne. It was clear that such judgements were being made by the Commons HS2 Select Committee without any obvious reference to a framework to guide their decision making.

When I gave evidence to the HS2 Phase 1 Commons Select Committee I raised a case in point (see footnote 4). I cited an example where HS2 Ltd had sanctioned a multi-million pound sum to employ a retained cutting to mitigate the damage to ancient woodland, but had ruled out the higher expenditure involved in a bored tunnel that would avoid the damage altogether; a position that was not queried by the Select Committee. I complained that the criteria that supported this decision had not been made clear; and remain unexplained to this day.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 13.7 of Appendix 13 (Assessment of Sustainability Overview) to 51m Response to HS2 Consultation, Ian Thynne for the 51m consortium of Local Authorities, July 2011.
  2. See paragraph 4.1.1 of the publication HS2 London to the West Midlands Appraisal of Sustainability, Main Report Volume 1, Booz & Co and Temple for HS2 Ltd, February 2011.
  3. See paragraph 1.1.8 in the document Proposal for Northern Extension of Northolt Tunnel SIFT Report, HS2 Ltd, March 2015.
  4. See paragraphs 261 and 262 in the transcript of the morning session of the Commons HS2 Select Committee held on Tuesday 20thJanuary 2015.

 

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