“Ecologically devastating” HS2: No light at the end of the tunnel

Maud Webster examines the environmental controversy surrounding the HS2 line and why it may be destined to crash

Maud Webster
11th February 2021
Credit: Edited from Wikimedia Commons

Will HS2 ever be finished? Who knows. Should it be? Probably not. 

High Speed 2, a railway line connecting London and Birmingham (in the first phase - the plan is to extend onwards to Leeds and Manchester) is contentious beyond the point of comedy and many climate activists are compelling the government to stop development. £7.5 billion has been sunk into the project since its Labour launch in 2009, with the first phase not projected to open until 2026 - though estimates show completion earlier than 2031 seems unlikely.

Image result for wikipedia hs2 proposed route
Where will HS2 go? | Credit: Wikipedia

Despite Government claims that HS2 is set to be “Britain’s biggest environmental project,” reports suggest hundreds of wildlife sites will be destroyed during its construction; this will include destruction or damage of 693 local wildlife sites, according to the Wildlife Trusts. Their 2020 report concluded that the creation of HS2 will be “ecologically devastating” and urged the Government to scrap the plan, reiterating that it is not “acceptable to destruct any of our valuable wild places that are crucial to nature’s recovery and pivotal to climate solutions,” especially as we approach a climate crisis.

In 2019, Boris Johnson asked Doug Oakervee (the former chairman of HS2 Ltd... but there'll be no bias there, right?) to conduct a review into the project. The eventual report, despite admitting the project will cost in excess of £100 billion, has been criticised as a skewed Tory attempt to validate continuing HS2, as a veiled marketing exercise. Even Lord Tony Berkeley resigned over the report:

So, construction continues. On the 29th of Janurary, at least nine HS2 Rebellion protesters began to occupy a tunnel under a London park near Euston Station, which they claim is at risk of sale for the HS2 line development. At the time of writing, they are yet to be evicted.

Despite all the concerns which have been unearthed during the past few years, still too many people are adopting the view that ‘we’re X many years deep, £X million invested, no point in stopping it all now. What a waste!’ without considering what the long-term environmental, economic and even social impacts of HS2 could mean. Sustainability is not exclusively environmental, but social; HS2 construction at Old Oak Common threatens the area's residents' health, finances and quality of life. One resident, diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, fears the transport blockages caused during the long-term construction works may be life-threatening in an emergency situation if he required immediate hospital care.

The pandemic is halting HS2 in its tracks - and it’s almost certainly for the best. Whilst primary rationale behind the service was to aid commuters getting into London, COVID-19 has sparked a significant shift in working patterns, as employees are encouraged to work from home. The Department of Transport admits they are unable to predict future travel patterns, and therefore passenger numbers; it looks likely that even if we regain a sense of normalcy, getting COVID-19 under control, passenger numbers may not reach the levels seen pre-pandemic.

People are starting to question the preconception that just because trains are more environmental than cars, or planes (as stressed on HS2’s website), this doesn’t make them inherently green, and their creation can often cause unjustified destruction. Labour's Lord Adonis, who incited the project over a decade ago, deflected "HS2 is emphatically green, unless you take the view that we shouldn't have any additional transport infrastructure what so ever" - completely ignoring the inevitable habitat losses which will accompany the completed project, and the huge carbon emissions which will accompany a decade of tunnelling construction. Objectors argue that emissions from the project's construction will never outweigh any potential carbon savings.

HS2 also has public transport enthusiasts divided; the topic has been disputed in the Facebook community, 'New-Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens'.

Pro-HS2 meme | Credit: David Bender, via Facebook

Some argue the project will ultimately be beneficial, and begrudge protestors for blocking HS2 as opposed to blocking new road infrastructure projects. They also criticise opposers' motives; are they genuinely concerned for the environment, or simply concerned for the increased property prices which will accompany quicker transport links into the capital?

They also argue that it's not just about quicker London to Birmingham travel times; Patrick Joseph comments: "it's about increasing rail capacity to allow for more local and freight trains on the existing network, specifically the WCML right now, which in turn will help to lower road usage".

However, many are siding with environmentalist HS2 skeptics (including Caroline Lucas and George Monbiot); they reiterate that HS2 will have hugely detrimental environmental impacts, in exchange for very little gain. They view HS2 as an unaffordable, unnecessary transport exercise which only really seems to benefit wealthy Londoners, not the North, especially as it seems phase two, an extension to Leeds and Manchester, is unlikely to open until 2035/2040 (if at all).

An anti-HS2 NUMTOT | Credit: Jordan Parker, via Facebook

This is all to cut journeys between Birmingham and London, down from 81 minutes to 52.

In my opinion, the Tories could make a good decision (for once) and let this rail fail. 

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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