Court battle looms over high-speed rail link’s threat to Chilterns landscape

24.10..2010 (Observer)
Campaigners demand judicial review for planned fast route to Birmingham and the
north that they say will mar the Chilterns and ruin wildlife havens
by Jamie Doward and Akila Jayahama

The case for a high-speed railway linking London with the north looks set to
end up in court amid fears over its impact on some of England’s finest countryside.

High Speed 2, which would link London and Birmingham and then Manchester, Leeds
and potentially Glasgow or Edinburgh, was backed by the previous government as
a vital contribution to the UK’s low-carbon future.

The project, which will cost more than £20bn, has been embraced by the coalition
government. The prime minister, David Cameron, recently suggested that “getting
people off roads and on to fast railways is good for the environment”.

Protesters argue, however, that the environmental impact as a whole will be negative. They want a judicial review on the grounds the government has failed to properly
assess the impact on places such as the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire, an area
of outstanding natural beauty. The law firm Public Interest Lawyers has advised that they have a strong case for bringing a judicial review, and
a fundraising exercise to commence legal action has now begun.

Analysis, shared with Buckinghamshire County Council, suggests the new link would
use twice the amount of
energy of the West Coast main line and as much as three times the amount if the trains
were to run at their maximum projected speed of 250mph
The project’s green credentials have been largely abandoned by coalition ministers
amid concerns they can no longer be corroborated.  
 HS2 Ltd, the company overseeing the project, now claims only that overall carbon
emissions will be “neutral”.

The case for HS2 is largely built on capturing the internal aviation market,
but 80% of all journeys between Manchester and London already involve the train,”
said Steve Rodrick, chief officer of the Chilterns Conservation Board.   “These trains will use double, possibly triple, the energy of normal trains.
Where’s that energy going to come from? You either have to bank on nuclear coming
on stream or, more likely, power stations running on fossil fuels, which will
involve significant carbon emissions.”

The extension of the route to Scotland would see journeys slashed, but only to
three-and-a-half hours, meaning air travel would still be competitive in terms
of journey time and price, Rodrick added. Unlike HS1, which runs through Kent,
HS2 will not follow existing motorways and train lines but an almost direct line
through the Chilterns, necessary for the trains to operate at maximum speed.

“What they are proposing is a virgin route,” said Peter Raine, former chief executive
of Kent Wildlife Trust who advised on HS1.   “You end up taking away habitat, ancient
woodland that is 400 years old.”     The proposed route runs through three sites
of scientific special interest, including a wetland nature reserve that is home
to migrating birds.

“People think it will be a normal railway,” said Joe Rukin, of the campaign group
Stop HS2. “But you’re looking at something that is 25m (82ft) wide – almost six
lanes of road – with a 25m no-vegetation zone either side, because the speed of
the trains creates a wind vortex that will pick up any vegetation and drag it
along. That makes it 75m wide. Wembley is only 69m wide.”

Marilyn Fletcher, of the Chiltern Countryside Group, said there were concerns
about the impact on the River Misbourne, a chalk stream rich in wildlife. “The
tunnel will go underneath it,” she said. “If the river runs dry on account of
the tunnelling it would affect protected species dependent on the river – great
crested newt, otters, water vole, kingfisher and the brown trout. Ancient buildings
– such as Hyde Farm and Chapel Farm near Hyde Heath – will also be destroyed.”

John Bercow, Buckingham’s MP and speaker of the House of Commons, said the scheme
failed to bring “any identifiable benefit to Bucks” and questioned the pro-line
arguments by ministers. “They keep moving the goalposts from the business case
to the national interest,” Bercow said. “It just won’t do.”

Cheryl Gillan, secretary of state for Wales, who represents Chesham and Amersham,
has written to the transport secretary, Philip Hammond, urging him to publish
a full assessment of the project’s environmental impact on the Chilterns. She
has asked the Environment Agency for a similar report.

Campaigners are furious that the government will not publish the assessment before
consultation begins early next year, saying the delay makes it difficult to put
their case. Work is scheduled to start on the project, to which the government
last week committed £750m, in 2015.

A department for transport spokesperson said: “The government has been clear
that it will publish the full appraisal of sustainability to inform the consultation
early next year. However, this cannot be finalised until a final decision on the
detailed route to be taken to consultation has been made.”