HS2: One Year On

Mark Vallance

A year since the Prime Minister gave High Speed Two the green light, where does the project stand - and what's the cost?

A year ago today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave High Speed 2 the green light. At the same time, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said “we needed all the facts to decide the way forward with HS2.” It is fair to say the world has changed a great deal in the last year, and the facts surrounding HS2 have altered dramatically. If the government needed all the facts a year ago to decide the way forward with HS2, surely the same remains true, and the impacts of the pandemic on transport demands must be factored in.

HS2

The government needs to stop and rethink the entire project, but it needs to do it openly and honestly.

The government’s justifications for the project change every time a justification is debunked.

First it was high-speed interconnectivity with a European rail network, then it was speed between London and the north, then capacity, then northern growth; now it is “part of a long-term infrastructure plan serving future needs.” But what are those future needs and do the identified “needs” reflect how the pandemic has changed working and travel patterns? 

Railway tracks

It is clear that HS2 is not a good idea. It is time for a change of tack.

As Professor Dieter Helm succinctly put it in September 2019, “What is the question or questions to which HS2 is supposed to be an answer? As with a number of big and long-term projects, as one rationale collapses another is grasped in the attempt to justify doing something, rather than work out whether it is a good idea.”

When it comes to the environment, it is clear that HS2 is not a good idea. Any argument that HS2 is necessary to combat climate change is debunked by HS2’s own report which shows that the project will take over 100 years to reduce carbon due to the massive emissions created during construction of the line. Any argument that HS2 will reduce air travel is undermined by Government’s ambition for airport expansion. Any argument that HS2 will reduce road travel is undermined by Government’s massive investment in new road projects. Any argument that HS2 will improve nature and help leave the environment in a better state for the next generation is debunked by the physical scars HS2 is leaving on our countryside.

Sun shining through ancient woodland

HS2 is doing untold damage to ancient woodlands and other precious habitats. Photo by Andy Bartlett.

HS2 may claim that it will deliver more for nature than currently exists, but that claim is fundamentally undermined by their failure to commit to deliver biodiversity net gain. Even if they did make such a commitment, the destruction of irreplaceable habitats, such as ancient woodland, cannot be compensated for and I do not believe they have the competence to deliver on any promises they make.

If our experiences at BBOWT are anything to go by, HS2 is causing more damage than they realise. The incompetence of their contractors is at times outstanding. In December 2019, we were outraged when HS2 contractors carried out clearance works at our Calvert Jubilee nature reserve without authorisation or advance warning to us. After receiving assurances that it would not happen again, at the start of February this year, further clearance works took place at the reserve, with no prior notice to us. We were told there was yet another “breakdown in communications” between HS2 and its various contractors leading to clearance works taking place that weren’t supposed to be happening. HS2’s left hand doesn’t know what its right hand is chain-sawing.

Any argument that HS2 is necessary to combat climate change is debunked by HS2’s own report which shows that the project will take over 100 years to reduce carbon due to the massive emissions created during construction of the line.
Matthew Stanton
Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust
Felled ash by HS2 at Calvert Jubilee

Felled ash by HS2 at Calvert Jubilee by Pete Bray

BBOWT and other Wildlife Trusts have now been challenging HS2 for a decade, including legal action in the Supreme Court, petitions of Parliament, appearing before Parliamentary Select Committees, publishing reports and assessments on the environmental impact of HS2 and delivering petitions signed by tens of thousands of members to Downing Street. In January this year the Chief Executives of the Wildlife Trusts, BBOWT and Staffordshire Wildlife Trust met the HS2 Minister to set out in no uncertain terms the damage the project was doing.

Government needs to stop and rethink HS2. It needs to ask itself what the point of the project is, whether it is needed in the post-pandemic world, and whether it is worth the cost, both financial and environmental. Any justification for continuing HS2 based on its environmental or climate credentials has been shown to be a complete myth.

Estelle Bailey, Chief Executive of BBOWT, at the Houses of Parliament

Estelle Bailey at Houses of Parliament by Chris Wood