Opposition to the controversial High Speed 2 (HS2) railway appeared to be weakening last night as Labour prepared to offer its full support to the Government in a crucial Commons vote tomorrow and a leading environmental group set out plans to create a "green corridor" along the route.
The second reading of a Bill paving the way for HS2 is expected to be passed tomorrow. And, despite leading Labour figures expressing reservations in recent months, Ed Miliband's party will back the rail line, saying that the benefits to the UK economy "will be great".
The Wildlife Trusts, which has led warnings that HS2 will endanger natural habitats, remains opposed to the route but, in a sign that it accepts the project may be unstoppable, has set out detailed plans for an "ambitious, large-scale nature restoration" along its length to mitigate its worst effects.
When he addresses MPs tomorrow, the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, is expected to back the report by the chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins, published last month, which recommended the project be built further and faster – extending to Crewe from London in phase one.
Writing for The Independent on Sunday today, Labour's transport spokesperson, Mary Creagh, says that while a Labour government would keep an eye on the HS2 budget – which has already increased – "Labour is backing this new line which will cut congestion on the railways, better connect our major cities and help deliver a one-nation economic recovery. HS2 will improve connections between the North and South and between northern cities.
"The latest high-speed rail technology will cut journey times between Britain's cities and support jobs and growth in the Midlands and North. HS2 can be a key element in Ed Miliband's Agenda 2030 plan to create an economic recovery that reaches every nation, region and sector."
The former business secretary Lord Mandelson has led opposition within the party to HS2, warning last year that it would be an "expensive mistake" which would "suck the lifeblood" out of the rest of the country's rail network. In January, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, added his doubts saying: "We need more capacity but there's no blank cheque, the costs have spiralled out of control and we need to know this is the best way to spend a huge amount of public money. We supported HS2 but we need to make sure that the costs are down and that this is the best way to spend the money. I don't think that's an argument which has yet been won by the supporters."
There remain opponents on all sides of the chamber, including several Conservative MPs and ministers whose constituencies will be directly affected by the route. Among those are Andrea Leadsom, who recently joined the Government as Treasury minister and has pledged to fight HS2, saying that the economic case for the line was "questionable and rapidly deteriorating".
But David Cameron and George Osborne remain determined that HS2 is built for the sake of Britain's economic future.
The IoS last year revealed that HS2 could cause damage to wildlife in an area the size of Dorset. Under current government plans, according to a new report by the Wildlife Trusts, around 500 wildlife sites – including 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 150 local wildlife and ancient woodland sites – will be damaged or destroyed.
To alleviate this, a ribbon of natural areas, wild havens, green bridges and cycle routes could be created along the route from London to Birmingham, the Wildlife Trusts has recommended. It says that the cost of such a large-scale environmental restoration could be £130m, but this is less than 1 per cent of the overall budget of £42bn.
The report proposes a 1km ribbon of wildlife-rich habitats or "green zones" to provide a buffer to existing areas of ancient woodland, wetland and grassland, and a parallel "Low Speed 2" – 120 miles of routes for walkers, horses and cyclists to open up access to the countryside.
The Wildlife Trusts says it is concerned that the HS2 Phase 1 Environmental Statement "does not reflect the route-wide environmental impacts and is so deficient as to be inadequate". It added that construction "will damage and destroy more wildlife than will be replaced".
The Wildlife Trusts' director of England, Stephen Trotter, said: "Currently, people and nature stand to lose if HS2 goes ahead, which is why our opposition to the proposed route remains. Like other affected groups, we will be petitioning against it. The Government needs to act now to set out an ambitious plan for restoring nature along the length of the route, otherwise the environmental impacts will not be satisfactorily mitigated. The greener vision for HS2 that we have published shows it would be feasible to create around 15,000 hectares of new, interlinked wild places along the route, ultimately providing a 'net gain' for wildlife."
Ms Creagh backed the idea of a green corridor, telling The IoS: "High-speed rail offers some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger-kilometre, significantly lower than those of cars and planes. Over its lifetime, HS2 will lead to net carbon reductions. HS2 is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a green spine linking our great cities and to open up wildlife corridors. The project should set the gold standard in environmental mitigation and in promoting plant and animal life along the route. The cost of HS2 is significant, but the benefits will be great."