HS2 – where natural and financial capital collide

Yesterday I went to a meeting hosted by the Natural Capital Committee which was set up by government to help it understand better how the state of the natural environment affects the economy and wellbeing of us all.

Sessile oak leaves in autumn

Sessile oak leaves in autumn

Work has begun on producing a balance sheet for natural capital assets which will sit alongside the Treasury’s financial balance sheet of UK PLC. The government hopes to have natural capital accounts in place by 2020. This will help it recognise the value of not just the country’s financial assets but also its environmental assets, such as woods, farmland, soils, water, energy and so on. This in turn will help it make decisions based on true sustainability rather than solely on GDP and economic growth which largely ignores environmental costs.

It was also the day that two reports about HS2 were published. Part of the rationale for HS2 is that it will stimulate economic growth yet the National Audit Office report has queried whether the financial costs and benefits of HS2 were as sound as has been portrayed by its supporters. The other report by HS2 itself set out much more detail on the environmental impact. It looks superficial and incomplete; it also needs the NAO treatment on the green detail. In fact, neither the financial nor the environmental case make HS2 look like a world class exemplar sustainable project.

This set me thinking further about how decisions around HS2 might be different if this project was being discussed in 2020 with natural capital accounting in place. Its claims to be a green transport solution would have been exposed much earlier given it takes no account of the damage to and destruction of large amounts of natural capital, (currently 67 ancient woods along the entire length of the route from London to Leeds and Manchester).

Indeed taking both the economic and the environmental balance sheet into account, instead of being hailed as giving impetus to growth, it might even be seen as pushing us into environmental recession as our total balance sheet of financial and environmental capital becomes further depleted. And it might mean that the Woodland Trust would not have to spend its time fighting the principle of ancient woodland destruction and compensation.

Natural capital accounting has not yet been born but it could be a really powerful policy tool to help us make better more sustainable decisions on behalf of us all. Let’s hope it happens, and soon.


About Hilary Allison

Policy Director, Woodland Trust
This entry was posted in Conservation, England, Woods Under Threat and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to HS2 – where natural and financial capital collide

  1. Ash says:

    Thank you Edith from me also! Your comments help shine a light on these matters. Your example of Japanese Knotweed is a good one. Close to where I live we have a dis-used canal & in the summer months the towpath is almost hidden by Himalayan Balsam. The bees do love it but nothing of our own native flora can grow. I think also of Ash die-back & ask why do we need to import ash timber? Surely we have the space & the know-how to grow & produce our own timber!

    Something has indeed gone wrong! The world is a great big mixed bag of civilisations & ecologies: we should not force the earth into sameness & equity.

    • Edith Crowther says:

      Absolutely – this is why I think the greatest law of all time is the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, and nearly every country in the world has ratified it – the only ones that did not were the USA, Andorra, and South Sudan (the latter because it is a brand new country, I presume). (The USA signed, but did not ratify – I do not know the reason for this as there are many Eco Warriors in the States, and in fact the movement started there way back in the 19th century.)

  2. Jim Clark says:

    If as seems possible with the rise of the ultra right Little Englanders we are let loose from Europe and set adrift in the Atlantic, will there be a need for HS2 or even the existing links with Europe via HS1. If we do leave Europe and I were the head of of a European country with direct links to Britain I would close the border and say ta ta you’re on your own.

    • Edith Crowther says:

      I think you will find that the whole of Continental Europe is swinging to “Eco-Fascism” as you would no doubt label it in a far more extreme manner than we Brits.

      For instance, in “rich” Germany, people are “stealing” wood from the forests (mostly owned by timber merchants now of course) in order to keep warm – fossil fuel energy is no longer affordable at all for many. Insurance premiums for logging companies have rocketed, and physical security devices have had to be installed at places where wood is stored in the forest before transportation elsewhere.

      I.e. people are getting a sharp reminder that as Chief Sitting Bull warned us “You cannot eat money” – and you can’t burn it for warmth either, it is gone in minutes and emits little heat anyway I imagine ( obviously I have not tried it out!).

      Also, I think you will find most Europeans really like Britons – it is our Governments and the City of London they do not like.

      However, you may be right about closure of borders, because all nations in the world are becoming protectionist in the face of the global Depression – rightly so. It is especially important to seal borders against entry of more humans – because humans are becoming uniquely destructive of “natural capital”, as if they were locusts or Japanese Knotweed or some other species that does not live in harmony with other species but devours all before it.

      Yet humans are not like this by nature, in the past they have always worked well with Nature and feared it too, and respected it. Something has gone badly wrong.

  3. Imogen Radford says:

    Destruction of all woods, whether ancient or not, destroys nature capital, destroys habitat which is crucial to combating climate change, to biodiversity, to the economy, and to people.

  4. Edith Crowther says:

    International law has already weighed the economic value of Development against the value of Conservation, and come down heavily in favour of Conservation – mainly via the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992. This Convention then found its way into the law of various nations (nearly all did sign the CBD). For European nations, it was left to the EU to draw up the laws, rather than each EU Member – however the EU Directives do instruct Members to then transpose EU law into their national law, in order to assist implementation.

    The next hurdle, is getting these laws A) read, B) understood, and C) obeyed in full (not in a sketchy fig-leaf way doing a tick-box exercise covering a handful of protected species). Of course if Developers ever do read and understand them they will avoid implementation – this is why it is important for members of the public to know these laws by heart and cite them at every opportunity, not just in court. However, Developers are human beings – and quite a few might have a “road to Damascus” moment if they were able to understand just what is at stake here – and ONLY the language of the law can pave the way to such understanding when a person’s mind is set in “Develop or Die” mode. They have to understand it is now “Develop and Die”, without a shadow of a doubt..

    The Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (2001/42/EC) requires a massive and exhaustive environmental assessment before the planning permission stage, of:-

    “all plans and programmes,
    (a) which are prepared for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, transport, waste management, water management, telecommunications, tourism, town and country planning or land use and which set the framework for future development consent of projects listed in Annexes I and II to Directive 85/337/EEC, or
    (b) which, in view of the likely effect on sites, have been determined to require an assessment pursuant to Article 6 or 7 of Directive 92/43/EEC.” (92/43/EEC is the Habitats Directive).

    The Government was challenged in court in December 2012 by the HS2 Action Alliance, represented by David Elvin QC of Landmark Chambers, about the lack of an SEA for the HS2 project. In March 2013, Judge Ouseley ruled that an SEA was not required because, quoting the Directive quoted above, the project did not “set the framework for future development consent of projects listed in Annexes I and II to Directive 85/337/EEC” – (the weighty Environmental Impact Assessment Directive).

    A summary of the court case can be found on the Landmark Chambers website, and it will be seen that permission has been given to appeal.

    Clearly the HS2 project, like any major rail project, DOES “set the framework” for future large projects at regional level. Much infrastructure, housing, and other large installations will be built on the back of it. If you look at the “projects listed in Annexes I and II to Directive 85/37/EEC”, you see that the construction of railway lines is listed in both Annex I (para 7(a) and in Annex II (para 10(c)).

    Furthermore, it DOES also come under para (b) of the SEA Directive’s definition, because it crosses SACs (Special Areas of Conservation listed under the Habitats Directive). This is proved by the fact that a Report WAS done for HS2 in relation to the Habitats Directive, called “Appraisal of Sustainability” (though it is not a proper SEA or EIA report that would pass muster in a court of law or anywhere else for that matter). This lists the SACs, in the vicinity, if anyone is interested.

    What has probably happened is that Judge Ouseley simply does not have the confidence to issue such a “pioneering” judgment, and is leaving the matter to the Supreme Court or even to the EU.

    These two Directives, EIA and SEA, working together and separately (many projects need both), have the potential to stop all major developments including large housing projects, as Justice Collins ruled in the famous “Save Historic Newmarket” case. This is because the exhaustive Assessment they require is virtually impossible to carry out properly, and is enormously costly even if done badly.

    But if major development needs to be stopped all over the world (these are ultimately UN laws, not EU ones) – why is that wrong? Surely it is a matter of survival, not only of our species but all other flora and fauna?

    • Thanks for that concise and illuminating statement of the position, Edith. Very useful for laypeople like myself who are more used to taking an idealistic rather than a pragmatic approach.

      • Edith Crowther says:

        Your type of approach is the one on which the letter of the Law is predicated! Thank you again.

  5. Peter Kyte says:

    Natural capital accounting if applied on a sound scientific rationale, might help balance the books, figuratively, than the present ad hoc, rush for growth, with financial impetus the only driver.

  6. Whilst I heartily applaud what this exercise is seeking to achieve, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the adoption of the term ‘natural capital’. Although I see that this could stem from E P Thompson’s idea of a ‘moral economy, by adopting financial terminology, it seems to acknowledge that finance has the ‘a priori’ position in this debate. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive or idealistic here, but I do tend to agree with John Stuart Mill when he says, “No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.”

    When considering the ‘value’ of our countryside, there are two positions that have to be considered. The first is the value of people’s experiences and enjoyment of the countryside and its place in promoting happiness and well-being. The second is the deep ecology idea that the countryside has an intrinsic value ‘per se’, regardless of how humans interact with it.

    Many years ago, John Maynard Keynes was well aware of the situation in which we now find ourselves when he said, “The rule of self-destructive financial calculation governs every walk of life. We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and stars because they do not pay a dividend.” I wonder if, though, by giving the countryside a ‘capital’ value we are using it in a dangerous trade-off with those who have a financial interest in its destruction. Perhaps, to quote Keynes once more, “Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation.”

    • Edith Crowther says:

      Thank you – did not see this before I posted mine!

      I don’t know whether the Government is being slyly disingenuous in attempting to measure Natural Capital (invaluable) against further Over-Development (zero or minus value if you add in the massive costs to health and habitat of all species) – or just plain stupid. After all, the negative sum value of further Development or Growth in both the Developed World and the Less Developed World has been known since the 1960s at the United Nations, and much work has been done to get this across at national and local level as well as international.

      In the end it does not matter whether Governments are being deceitful or stupid, They are wrong, either way, and UNEP is right – and has to some extent bypassed governments and appealed to local people in each region to pick up the cudgels in defence of the environment. (Article 8(j) of the CBD 1992 and much EU and UK “localism” legislation deriving from 8(j)).

Sorry, comments are closed as we have moved to a new site: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s