The 31-day tunnel protests beside Euston station have come to a close, after activists excavated and occupied underground networks to hinder the construction of an interim taxi rank – which will be built to adapt the Euston area for High Speed 2 (HS2) railway construction. Reports of the tunnel occupation are the newest of dotted media coverage that reminds us of the relentless opposition this controversial project has faced. The site the activists defended for a month is the only forested haven along the Euston Road – a place where ‘breathing is a risk’, having been frequently awarded the title of ‘one of the most polluted roads in Britain’ for exceeding legal pollution levels staggeringly for years. HS2 threatens this small park and patch of time-worn London planes trees, who will have witnessed the unfolding of this area of the city’s cultural and social history. They have been decorated symbolically with colourful scarfs for years, tied around their sturdy trunks to show visual opposition to the felling they have been threatened with – like preemptive bandages to coming, indelible wounds.
What is HS2 and what is at stake?
HS2 is a new high-speed railway currently under construction in the UK, aiming to make links between London, the Midlands, the North and Scotland faster, while allowing existing lines to be freed for regional use. As its construction has cleavered down the country, clearing beloved (and already sparse) ancient woodland and natural habitat, it has been met with serious opposition – strongly dividing public opinion. Multiple Judicial reviews were filed during the route planning stage, as various parties tried to protect their neck of the woods against HS2, which has been advertised as a modernising, ‘low carbon’ transport development.
Throughout 2020, occupation and construction-prevention protest camps were established by local communities, reinforced by those traveling miles to partake in the national Stop HS2 campaign at the frontline of this defence for nature protection. Most of the largest protest camps have since been cleared by the construction works – the oak tree in the image above most likely long gone – and it is not difficult to understand why HS2 has evoked opposition. A survey by The Independent found the project threatened at least 350 nature reserves, including 50 ancient woodlands, 30 river corridors and wetlands, refuges for some of the British Isles’ rarest species, 24 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Though valuing these embedded ecosystems is impossible, HS2 promises ‘no net nature loss’ and has adopted the language of rewilding, claiming it will offset carbon, replace nature, and even relocate the soil network from some of the ancient woodlands it will fell. Ecologists have deemed this plan ‘fundamentally flawed’ and reinforce that established ecosystems are irreplaceable. HS2 Limited was also exposed in spring 2020 for ploughing ahead with felling, despite promises that woodland disruption would be completed in Autumn to limit disturbance to nesting birds and emerging pollinators.
This project is seriously shifting the landscape around many communities in a country which is already one of the ‘most nature deprived in the world’, with 1 in 7 native species facing extinction according to a WWF review. The well-reported news last October that HS2 employees had felled the beloved, wild 250 year-old Cubbington pear tree, which was publicly voted England’s Tree of the Year in a 2015 Woodland Trust poll, is emblematic of exactly how HS2 development is hacking away at local cultural-landscape pride across England. After the pear’s felling, The Save Cubbington Woods campaign group noted they had been left with a ‘sense of numbness as this takes its toll on us all’.
Political pitfalls of HS2
The toll HS2 takes certainly extends beyond the local communities around its route. Initially the project had a generous budget of £33 billion, but is already years behind schedule and has cost billions more – with predictions that it could exceed even £100 billion now being brought into question as underestimations. This adds to growing disapproval with HS2 now being discredited in the media as one of Boris Johnson’s expensive, political ‘vanity projects’ – similar to those he initiated during his London mayorship, which were halted rapidly after his term.
HS2 is currently balancing an unfortunate, fine policy line between being so wasteful that its viability needs to be urgently reviewed while, on the other hand, having siphoned so much investment that its abandonment now seems politically impossible. Approximately £100 million is being consumed by HS2 weekly and such a figure demands scrutiny, especially after more than decade of austerity comprising of brutal public-spending cuts, privatisation, and the continuing Covid-19 crisis which has resulted in only a ‘pitiful 1% NHS pay rise‘ as well as an income tax base freeze. HS2 Limited claims the railway will be ‘critical for the UK’s low carbon transport future’ with hopes it will curb domestic flight usage, but this conveniently masks the decades of carbon offsets needed to neutralise its construction, along with recent findings that it will be a carbon-burden after its first several decades of use. HS2 Limited argue the line will ‘rebalance the UK economy’ and regenerate connections throughout the north of England.
This would be a promising development, if HS2 can miraculously sustain its expense past the first construction phase – which is counterintuitively just London to Birmingham, despite this promise of being a harbinger for needed Northern regeneration. During the HS2 discussion at the 2019 election climate debate, Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price reminded us that there is not even a railway directly linking North to South Wales, making faster links into London seem unimportant nationally. HS2 therefore seems to be a London-centric technocratic project, as well as being direly expensive and poorly managed.
HS2: a missed opportunity?
In times of climate and ecological uncertainty, Brexit, and pandemic, it is evident that locally resilient economies that prioritise nature need to be encouraged. HS2 seems like a painfully careless project in the face of all this. The public funds being poured into it could have been used to rejuvenate current train lines and transport in disconnected areas. They could have been used to create jobs in installing urgently needed green, nature corridors and bridges over motor and railways – something the UK is seriously lacking in. They could have been used to help us bolster nature protections locally, instead of relying on carbon offset projects usually based abroad which often deny local people access to needed resources in the name of “climate justice”.
Nature protection needs to be locally engaged, not exported, and HS2 – as a greenwashed project based on promoting hyperconnectivity between cities for fast-paced economic productivity – undermines the kind of careful work that needs to be engaged with currently as we seek better social, natural and economic models for sustainability. While low-carbon transport which connects the North is a wonderful premise, HS2 is proving itself to be a myopic project, both lacking in care for the communities it will cut through on its way to cities and lacking in care for the global community, on whom the UK cannot forever rely to provide the nature needed to maintain liveable earth systems.
Recently, the Stop HS2 campaign were reporting that groups of perplexed deer are waiting – staring bluntly at a recently built HS2 fence in Colne Valley, probably confused that their well-worn route to woodland on the other side has suddenly been obstructed. The images that are being shared of these deer looking puzzled at the HS2 fence sum up what it feels like to survey this project – as it means asking; what on earth has happened here?
By Nina Hanna
Nina is a working group Member, Energy & Environment Policy Center.
Image by Dylan Hayward, Unsplash. Protest camp obstructing the path of H2S’s construction in Leamington Spa, Summer 2020.
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