Compensation culture, part 8

(… continued from Compensation culture, part 7, posted on 12 Mar 2017).

By concentrating its proposals for habitat offset creation largely within the bill limits, HS2 Ltd has created further potential pitfalls that could reduce the effectiveness of the compensation provided. Clearly there is no guarantee that land within the bill limits is suitable for offset habitat creation, and there are likely to be sites outside the bill limits that are far more appropriate for this purpose. The habitat types that can be created on land within the bill limits are also likely to be constrained, and this probably accounts for the prevalence of new grassland and scrubland in the HS2 offsetting proposals.

A further consideration is that created habitat, if successfully established, is likely to attract flying animals: drawing birds and bats close to a location where trains are hurtling past at up to 225mph is a likely invitation to a violent death.

Another potential problem that is likely to arise with the creation of offset habitat within the bill limits is one of timescales. In the excellent critique of the merits of biodiversity offsetting that may be found in the Lawton Report the point is made that “wherever possible, the created habitat should be in place before the original site is lost” (see footnote 1). Whilst I am sure that there will be locations within the bill limits where new habitat could be created before major construction work begins, much of the land will be disturbed, either dug up or compacted by heavy machinery passing over, and is unlikely to be unavailable for nature for several years after existing habitat has been destroyed.

Further, concentrating offset habitat creation in what is effectively a linear arrangement determined by the bill limits is unlikely to be optimum in achieving the linking together of areas to make ecological corridors and a connected network, as envisaged in the Lawton Report (see footnote 2 and footnote 3).

In the interests of balance though, I should point out that the metric devised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for the pilot schemes does rate offset habitat sited near to the habitat being lost as having a higher biodiversity value than offsets located further away. Whilst keeping within the bill limits does not ensure that lost and offset habitats will be close to each other, it will lend support to this aim (see footnote 4). However, the Defra bias has not been employed in the HS2 metric.

Another important consideration in determining the amount of offset habitat required to balance the biodiversity loss caused by habitat destruction is the time taken for the offset habitat to reach the required quality or level of maturity to replace that loss. This lag in replacing biodiversity loss is taken into account in the metric by reducing the biodiversity value of offset habitat that will take longer to reach maturity. In its review of the HS2 offsetting proposals, Natural England, whilst criticising the Defra pilot scheme metric for being “difficult to use within a calculation due to its wide ranges”, quotes expert advice as regarding the HS2 Ltd treatment as being “overly optimistic” (see footnote 5). The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee agreed, opining that the discounting applied by the HS2 Ltd metric “does not fully represent the extent of the environmental harm from the potential delays” (see footnote 6).

I have to confess that I do not find the HS2 Ltd methodology, as far as it is explained in the HS2 London-West Midlands No net loss biodiversity calculation report, very reassuring. I feel that HS2 Ltd has taken advantage of the failure, so far, of Defra to apply the knowledge that has been gained from the pilot schemes to produce a definitive set of guidelines for offsetting and has cherry-picked the Defra guidelines, and adapted them to produce a metric for HS2 that is convenient to its sponsors. There are many bones of contention associated with the methodology that that HS2 Ltd is following. Aside from the issues that I have identified in this and the previous two parts of this blog series – keeping largely within the bill limits, the failure of the offsets to match, or better, the quality of habitat destroyed, falling short in replacing hedgerows and underestimating the effects of the time required for offsetting to establish – there are the two major concerns that I have reported previously: refusing to remove SSSIs from the offsetting calculation (see footnote 7), and falling short of the recommended offset ratio for ancient woodland (see footnote 8).

I find it irksome, to say the least, that, despite this obvious failure by HS2 Ltd to meet its environmental responsibilities, the HS2 publicity machine is spinning a somewhat different tale.

Whilst the potential for biodiversity offsetting to reduce the environmental damage resulting from development activities must be welcomed, if it is employed without the necessary integrity it also has the potential to be a two-edged weapon, as the Lawton Report warns (see footnote 9):

“Biodiversity offsetting must not become a ‘licence to destroy’ or damage existing habitat of recognised value. In other words, offsets must only be used to compensate for genuinely unavoidable damage. Development should avoid adverse impacts first, mitigate impacts second and compensate for unavoidable impacts as a last resort.”

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) was obviously concerned that HS2 Ltd had not had sufficient regard to this “mitigation hierarchy”, venturing that “the Government has significant work to do to demonstrate that this approach is being applied, given the environmental damage current plans envisage to ancient woodlands, SSSIs and local wildlife sites, and the possible significant harm for particular species affected (see footnote 10). The EAC also noted that “throughout the Environmental Statement, ‘mitigation’ and ‘compensation’ measures had been used interchangeably”, whereas these are clearly very different in the context of the mitigation hierarchy (see footnote 11).

It is certainly my impression that HS2 Ltd has slipped into a form of “compensation culture”, and has been far too willing to use offsetting where it should have tried harder to avoid or mitigate instead.

Footnotes:

  1. See sub-item (vii) of paragraph 6.4.3 of the report Lawton, J H, et al, Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network, report to Defra, September 2010.
  2. See Recommendation 19 in paragraph 6.4.1 of Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network.
  3. The HS2 no net loss metric does however, unlike the Defra pilot schemes metric, take account of any contribution made to improving the ecological network by applying a multiplier to enhance the biological units value of offset habitat. See paragraph 5.1 in the report Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric, Natural England, November 2016. Whilst the Natural England review applauds the intention, it condemns the methodology as “over simplistic” and recommends the removal of the multiplier from the HS2 metric. See paragraph 5.27 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  4. See paragraph 5.2 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  5. See paragraphs 7.6 and 7.14 in Review of the High Speed 2 No Net Loss in Biodiversity Metric.
  6. See paragraph 40 in the publication HS2 and the environment, 13thReport of Session 2013‒14, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, April 2014.
  7. See my blogs Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 1 (posted 7 Jan 2017) and Some Sites Seem Irreplaceable, part 2 (posted 11 Jan 2017).
  8. See my blogs Cutting out the old wood, part 3 (posted 18 Dec 2016), Cutting out the old wood, part 4 (posted 22 Dec 2016) and Cutting out the old wood, part 5 (posted 26 Dec 2016).
  9. See sub-item (i) of paragraph 6.4.3 in Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network.
  10. See paragraph 18 in HS2 and the environment.
  11. See paragraph 15 in HS2 and the environment.

 

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