‘I’ve seen how it affects people’

As opposition and protest continues against a new high-speed rail network in the UK, Denise Laura Baker meets some of those taking a stand against HS2 along the line.

A section of the HS2 construction site. Credit: Denise Laura Baker

On Monday 13 September, the UK Parliament will discuss the ongoing case for the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project after a petition opposing the project, signed by 155,000 was presented to parliament. The development has faced much opposition from across the political spectrum. Even senior Conservatives are describing it as a ‘huge white elephant’ saying it should be ‘put out of its misery’.

Those opposing HS2 argue that its environmental costs – including the destruction of the 250-year-old Cubbington pear tree and surrounding woodland, the felling of ‘Roald Dahl’ woods and the clearance of Euston Square Gardens – a valuable city green space, far outweigh any benefits the rail network may bring in reducing polluting transport and providing better transport links.

There are also human costs which are yet to be fully recognized but those who are worst hit, with the line travelling directly through their home or business, are reticent about speaking out. The escalating number of Non-Disclosure Agreements between HS2 Limited (the company overseeing the development) and third parties – including businesses, public bodies and local residents – was raised in the House of Lords back in December 2020. The official line from HS2 and the government is that people who are displaced or impacted by the development are adequately compensated, but emerging information suggests a different story.

Vickie, one of a handful of Warwickshire residents fighting HS2.  Credit: Denise Laura Baker 

Vickie is the mother of seven grown-up children, six of whom are autistic and four of whom still live with her. The family home in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where she has lived for 35 years was originally due to have the HS2 line travel through the centre of it.

We are probably some of the last people that will see some of the trees standing, see the environment before it’s decimated

Aside from the impact on her family, as someone who runs her own business, Vickie explained that her main criticism of the HS2 project is the lack of a solid business case to back it up. She accused HS2 of being chaotic, lying, breaking promises and poor communication with local people. If there had been a business case that was good for the whole country, Vickie says she wouldn’t have minded the development so much.

As it is, although Vickie and her children haven’t lost their home, HS2 did take around half of the land attached to it, which formed their garden and adjoining woodland. As she pointed out, it was years before the family received any compensation. When it did come, Vickie says that the amount was ridiculously small (and undisclosable thanks to an NDA). The family are still fighting HS2 over this.

While these losses are significant, the stress and impact on the mental health of the family was worse. Two of Vickie’s children received psychiatric care due to the ongoing trauma, while the family says their requests that HS2 contact them before turning up, in order to minimize disruption, were largely ignored. Two days after the Covid-19 lockdown began in March 2020, HS2 arrived unannounced to take possession of the land. Or as they referred to it, it was ‘handover day’. As Vickie pointed out: ‘This isn’t a handover. I’m not giving you my land; you are taking it.’ She asked if she needed to sign something to conclude the transfer and there was nothing. No paperwork, no evidence of the transfer.

The response to HS2 from the wider community was initially mixed; while one farmer was quite happy to sell a piece of land he wasn’t farming, others have had a more traumatic time. Once construction started in earnest and residents saw how gridlocked Kenilworth was becoming due to the works, they suddenly began to realize the enormity of the project’s impact.

Small legal wins have been a result of community-wide efforts, says Ealing resident Amanda.  Credit: Denise Laura Baker

Both Amanda and Chris’ London homes back on to the Old Oak Common ‘super-hub’ HS2 development in West London.

As someone who travels frequently, Amanda says she has noticed that trains travelling to Birmingham and Manchester are never full and doesn’t agree that there are capacity issues within those parts of the existing rail network. Turning First Class into Standard Class carriages and reducing peak time fares could alleviate overcrowding a peak-times. Aside from this, post-Covid train travel is likely to be significantly reduced. At a meeting held by the mayor’s office (development corporation), to which Chris and Amanda were invited by their MP, a speaker from Transport-Watch pointed out that rail travel will never return to its previous capacity.

This, Chris suggests, makes the idea that because it has been started, it must be finished, ludicrous: ‘The idea you need to spend another £100 billion [$138.6 billion] to make up for the £6 billion you have already spent [before the pandemic] doesn’t make any sense. I know £6 billion [$8.3 billion] is a lot of money, but they’ve just blown £40 billion [$55.5 billion] on an app [to track and trace Covid-19 infections] that doesn’t work.’

On his first day at a HS2 protest camp he saw his friends get beaten up by bailiffs that had arrived in the early morning to evict them

Some residents elsewhere in East Acton initially thought that HS2 would bring new jobs and be a good thing, but as Chris pointed out, they didn’t have to live with what was going on at Old Oak Common. The removal of trees, which had previously provided natural insulation against both light and sound means that the sound is amplified, lights constantly shine into their rooms and an office block has windows that can see directly into their bedrooms.

In 2020 as work on the line began, the government pledged 22,000 new jobs, however, Chris is sceptical, suggesting that the figures are fantasy: ‘You’re telling me there’s 1,500 train drivers down in East Acton that are ready to go?’

The campaign group Stop HS2 points out that Boris Johnson and others who hail the creation of 22,000 jobs are ‘rather less keen to mention that HS2 is projected to permanently displace almost that many jobs.’

Chris, one of many Acton locals now impacted by the pollution caused by HS2 construction.  Credit: Denise Laura Baker 

Chris agrees: ‘Behind here was the GWR (Great Western Railway). In that space alone 200 people were laid-off. If you added up all the people that had been laid-off because all of the businesses that have been demolished, it’s at least 2,000 people in the Old Oak/Park Royal area.’

Chris explains that there were concerns from many sides, including the Transport For London, local government and a local cycling group, about the additional traffic the Old Oak Common station plan would bring. ‘This week planning permission was granted and now they are saying, “yes, really sorry, but you can’t have segregated bike lines and pedestrian walkways”. This is like the biggest station in London in the last 100 years and they won’t even have decent access to it… the idea was you should access the station through public transport, or by foot, or on a bike and now they cannot even provide safe access.’

Amanda, Chris and many of their neighbours feel that it was easier to marginalize residents as a result of the town’s significant lower-income and ethnic minority populations.

As Amanda points out, Ealing may be quite well-off as a borough, but it has a huge low-income population that do not have the money to go to court and fight. Every small win for the community, from sound insulation to being able to present in parliament, has taken hours and hours of preparation and research, which takes its toll. But, she says, it has been a whole community effort.

Environmental activist Alex argues his generation could be the last to see enjoy the local environment before it’s decimated by HS2. Credit: Denise Laura Baker

Alex has been involved in environmental activism for about two years. As one of the campaigners protesting against HS2 and living in the camps set up along the line, he has seen first-hand the destruction of woodland and natural wildlife habitats. He thinks that, instead of HS2, investment should have been made in existing rail infrastructure.

Alex described how on his first day at a HS2 protest camp he saw his friends get beaten up by bailiffs that had arrived in the early morning to evict them. He had his own encounter with off-duty National Eviction Team bailiffs who he says broke his jaw. The NET have been contracted to work on several evictions of protesters along the HS2 route.

After that, Alex felt there was no going back. He was studying for a Master’s degree in political philosophy, but became increasingly disillusioned with the current system, choosing instead to join the protest community.

I’ve seen grown men; hardened farmers break down in tears. I’ve seen how it affects people, losing their homes, losing the places where they like to go out in nature, take their children, walk their dogs, as well as just the destruction of the scenery around them... we are probably some of the last people that will see some of the trees standing, see the environment before it’s decimated.’

As a campaigner, Alex sees part of his role as working to connect with the local community, and to engage them in the campaign. He concludes that his activism ‘is a cathartic release, about building communities, living with people who share the same kind of vision as you do. The camps are exactly that, communities growing as much food as they can and living as close to nature as possible.’ It also opens up a space where people who haven’t ever experienced alternative ways of life can see what it’s all about.

After many months of resisting the HS2 development over the pandemic, many of the protest camps have now either been evicted or have wound up operations. Some have just a few people remaining but it seems the mantle of protest has now been taken up by the communities impacted.

But with concerns about the project mounting, including a growing number of Conservative backbenchers from the government’s own party, as well as spiralling costs, is HS2 on its way out?