HS2 under fire for breaking environmental assurances


HS2 Ltd has again come under fire for its treatment of local communities along the route, this time being accused of a catalogue of issues including breaking environmental assurances, and non-compliance with its code of construction practice.

In a virtual evidence session, MPs on the Transport Select Committee were told that HS2 was 'absolutely not' a good neighbour after 'a catalogue of errors' had caused chaos in rural communities along the route.

Land marked off for HS2 near Kenilworth

The news comes after MPs on the committee complained to HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson in May last year about the 'appalling' and 'horrendous' treatment some communities had received from HS2 Ltd.

At the time, he was invited to pledge to step down within six months if this situation had not improved, which he declined to do.

Phil Gaskin, chairman, Calvert Green Parish Council, told the committee: 'From the start, it has been what I would call a catalogue of errors. Our worst fears are becoming a reality. Despite all of the promises we were given during the consultation period things have changed significantly, and we have to remember HS2 hasn't even started main construction yet.'

Mr Gaskin accused HS2 Ltd of non-compliance with its code of construction practice and accused it of 'deliberate attempts to hide significant changes [to plans] from the community', which it only justified in retrospect.

'There is an impact on health and wellbeing. I can't really stress enough the overall impact on our area,' he said.

'That whole consultation process we went through in my mind is undermined by all of the changes that were enforced immediately after Royal Assent [of the hybrid bill]. When we request more detailed plans of the changes, we are told we are not allowed to see them because of potential espionage. In my mind, that's absolutely ludicrous.'

He went on to detail practical issues like a lack of notice for road diversions, or sometimes no notice at all, which caused residents to go miles out of their way and had made children late for school. He also complained of a lack of signage, HGVs queueing in roads in areas there were not supposed to be and a lack of co-ordination with the East-West rail project in his area.

Luci Ryan, lead policy advocate for infrastructure at The Woodland Trust, agreed and told MPs there had been a 'disconnect between what HS2 Ltd thinks is happening and what is happening on the ground'.

'We have had assurances breached and might have even more breached. It turns out there is no process for dealing with assurances that have been breached.

'We have been told all along that what was in the environment statement, going through to the hybrid bill, was a worst case scenario, and that in once we got into detailed design it would be improved.

'Actually we were seeing breaches of the ecology technical plan and ended up having to do a Freedom of Information request and going to the Information Commissioner to get answers. And we are in a privileged position because we have monthly meetings with HS2 and can get access to the minister and we still can't get our questions answered.'

Ms Ryan said that HS2 contractors had not been properly briefed on environmental best practice at times and so had carried out works on ancient woodland at the wrong time of year, perhaps in part because the works were behind schedule.

Extinction Rebellion Denham Ford protest camp

HS2 is carrying out a controversial policy of translocation of the soils of ancient woodland as compensation for the loss of the woodland itself. The hope being the soils will see trees spark to life again in the new location.

The Woodland Trust argues it is not 'feasible for ancient woodland because ancient woodland is defined as an irreplaceable habitat'.

Ms Ryan said this was an 'unproven technique', but if it was to be done, it should be done in late autumn and early winter, not April, when HS2 carried out such works because it causes an even greater environmental impact.

Ms Ryan said HS2 Ltd had admitted in previous media statements that it was 'acting against industry standards' by doing the work in spring.

Mark Thurston, HS2 Ltd chief executive, also admitted to the committee that 'there had been areas of non-compliance but we would never do bad practice'. 

HS2 had also failed to identify all the ancient woodland that it would impact in phase one of the scheme 'until it was too late' Ms Ryan said, suggesting only 16 of the 43 sites were originally flagged up. 

So far HS2 has not agreed to the requests of the Woodland Trust to make the assurances it has received binding undertakings or signed up to the compensation regime it asked for.

The Trust is calling for a replacement ratio of 30 new trees, which would be sourced and grown in the UK or Ireland to avoid importing any foreign disease, for every one ancient tree lost. The calls were supported by Natural England.

Deborah Fazan

Deborah Fazan, independent residents' commissioner on HS2, highlighted a recent report of hers, which called for a new express purchase and evaluation system for properties on the route as historically the scheme could take up to 22 months for those applying.

She also called on HS2 to provide assurances for improved community engagement after one community was given two weeks notice of a road closure that would take four to five months.

Overall, she said she had made 85 recommendations so far when in her post and around four-fifths have been implemented.

'The company has made significant progress in terms of its approach to community engagement over the last six years, but it definitely has more to do. It is particularly important that HS2 makes sure all of its contractors take community engagement into account,' she said.

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