HS2 Ltd interview with Countryfile
Peter Miller is HS2 Ltd’s Head of Environment. He was interviewed for the edition of Countryfile to be broadcast on Sunday 1 June at 7pm.
I travelled from London to Stoke Mandeville recently to record an interview with BBC Countryfile presenter Tom Heap. He was interested to learn more about the work I and my team at HS2 Ltd are doing to minimise the impact of Britain’s new north-south high speed rail network.
I explained to Tom that, despite what some people may think, we care very much about the environment. I lead a dedicated team that is working hard to protect both the rural and urban areas that the line will pass through.
HS2 will bring enormous benefits for the country by freeing up much-needed space on our increasingly crowded railway, especially in the south-east. It will shorten journey times between our biggest cities in the north, the Midlands and between them and London. And it will boost the economy by supporting jobs, offer regeneration opportunities around the new stations and the construction will bring billions of pounds worth of supply chain contracts to UK businesses. But we still have to do all that we can to protect our precious natural habitats and woodlands, as well as reducing the disruption to those living along the planned route.
We set out our current plans for doing this in the 50,000 pages of the Environmental Statement (ES) that was submitted to Parliament along with the hybrid Bill – essentially the planning application to build the first phase of the new line between London and the West Midlands – in November last year.
MPs overwhelmingly backed these plans when they voted on the second reading of the Bill at the end of April. With 452 voting in favour and only 41 against, the majority of 401 was among the highest for a House of Commons vote since the 2010 election.
The Countryfile programme that I was interviewed for is being broadcast from Buckinghamshire and Tom wanted to know what environmental protection measures will be put in place there.
We are doing a lot; I wasn’t able to cover everything in my interview but I was able to explain our proposals for tunnelling under the Chilterns to help protect this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). We have extended the length of the tunnelling here in response to the original public consultation in 2011. The suggestion of a tunnel under the entire Chilterns AONB has been explored and given extensive consideration. But we have clearly set out in the ES how the current proposals provide the best balance between route engineering, cost and the desire to minimise environmental impacts.
I also talked Tom through how we can move soils from the ancient woodlands the line passes through to new sites and how we will plant over two million trees along the 140 miles of the first part of the network. I explained the extensive surveying we have done on the bat colonies that are present in this part of the countryside and the protection plans we have made for them.
We also discussed some of the points that the EAC raised in their report. There will be a formal Government response shortly but I ran through some of the areas I had spoken with the committee about during my evidence session - in particular, the aim of no net loss to biodiversity from the development of HS2. The EAC acknowledged that this is a very challenging objective but I certainly feel that it is one we will achieve and if we can see a net gain by working in partnership with others then that’s even better.
A lot of the environmental concerns on HS2 will now be addressed through the Bill petitioning process. The closing date for submitting petitions to Parliament was 23 May and there are just over 1,900 in total. This is lower than many expected and that is certainly down to the efforts of the HS2 Ltd staff who have been meeting with stakeholders in advance to understand any issues that might be raised.
A number of submissions did come from Buckinghamshire and many have asked for a tunnel to run all the way under the Chilterns. Others cited the impact on public rights of way, visual effects on the landscape and the potential disruption through noise and vibration. There were also worries about traffic management during construction.
Of course we understand these concerns. We will continue to work with the Bill committee and the petitioners to address them and find solutions. HS2 will bring enormous national benefits as I set our earlier but we have to be realistic that the building of such an important piece of infrastructure for the future will have some impact on the environment. But I believe we are getting the right balance and have learned from the best practice of similar projects such as HS1 and Crossrail. Ultimately, we will deliver a 21st century transport system that will show the very best of British design, engineering and environmental protection.