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Blows traded as HS2 decision approaches

Places - Wendover Woods ©HS2 Ltd

The company managing HS2 project has slammed a critical report on the project produced by the Wildlife Trusts as "inaccurate and misleading".

The report  ‘What’s the damage?’ assesses a range of impacts across all phases of HS2 on protected wildlife sites, species and landscape restoration projects. 

Drawing on data from 14 local wildlife trusts, it states that HS2 will destroy "huge swathes of irreplaceable natural habitat." The report lists 693  Local Wildlife Sites, more than a hundred ancient woodlands, 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 21 Designated Local Nature Reserves and five sites of international importance.  Endangered species said to be at risk include barn owls, white-clawed crayfish, willow tits, lizard orchids and the dingy skipper butterfly.

It describes HS2 Ltd’s proposed mitigation and compensation measures as "inadequate and inappropriate" and its methodology for determining biodiversity net gain as "not credible".

Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of campaigns and policy said: "The potential loss of so many really important wild places and wildlife has never been revealed before, nor has the damage that will be done to taxpayer-funded, nature recovery projects."

The report admits that is based on route information supplied by HS2 Ltd, "as and when it has become available". It says: "While we do know that the route is unlikely to vary substantially, we don’t yet know the detailed design, so the data and wild places detailed are at genuine risk of loss or damage until proven otherwise."

The cost of the project has more than doubled to a projected £106bn. With the publication of Lord Oakervee feasibility review imminent, Grant Shapps, transport secretary has said that a decision will be announced "next month". The Department for Transport is thought to be considering options including a mix of high-speed and conventional lines north of Birmingham.

Comments Tweeted by HS2, describe the Wildlife Trusts’ report as "inaccurate and misleading". HS2 argues that the number of sites presented as "at risk of loss, or significant impact" in the report is inaccurate.

Its statement says: "The trusts claim that 33 SSIs are affected. In fact, the number is 14, of which only two are on phase one. It appears to be simply a list of all sites within 500m of the line. It has not been accompanied by evidence of significant impact."

The statement argues that by providing a greener way to travel, HS2 will help to fight climate change. Tailored mitigation plans include new habitats, 16 specially designed ‘green bridges’ and 42km of tunnels.

It adds: "Investment in a state-of-the-art, high-speed line is critical for the UK’s low-carbon transport future. It will provide much-needed rail capacity up and down the country and is integral to rail projects in the north and Midlands which will help rebalance the UK economy."

Business and civic representatives in the West Midlands, including chief executive of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, Paul Faulkner, and combined authority mayor, Andy Street, have said that the loss of HS2 would be a blow for Birmingham and "a betrayal of trust on an unprecedented scale".

In the city, the ground has been cleared for a large new station at Curzon Street, designed to accommodate seven platforms, shops, a hotel and 4,000 homes. High-speed rail will bring a 51-minute journey time to London’s Euston station. Initial work is also well-developed for an interchange station at Solihull, serving Birmingham Airport and the NEC.

Is such an ambitious programme, reminiscent of the state-of-the-art engineering of the railway boom of Victorian times really to abandoned, local politicians and business leaders wonder? And what about Manchester and Leeds, further to the north, which are set to be reached in phase two? Didn’t Boris Johnson recently promise northern voters that he would reward their switch of allegiance to the Conservatives? The prime minister, who is also being lobbied by Conservative MPs whose ancient woodlands are crossed by the line, faces a difficult decision. Meanwhile, in a withering judgement, the National Audit Office has said that those who are building the line do not have a firm grip on the final cost.

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