HS2: England’s Front Line Against Ecological Collapse

By Joseph Conway, Opinion

HS2 is fast becoming the epicentre of the climate crisis within England. With a huge, concerted effort from activists to block its route and cancel it entirely comes a larger, evermore violent effort to end this resistance by HS2, bailiffs, and the police. Between these three forces, the fight against climate change manifests in the depths of our forests and the streets of our cities.

It’s a battle which we owe not only to the locals & animals losing lives and homes, not only to the taxpayer losing billions for a slightly quicker train journey to London, but to the whole world; to fight for climate justice wherever we can. At the front lines of this fight are bailiffs, police, activists and local people. How they interact tells us volumes about the current state of the fight for climate justice and against catastrophe. First of all, what is HS2 and why does it spell ecological disaster?

HS2

HS2 is on route to significantly affect or destroy 693 Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) covering 9,696 hectares, including five internationally designated protected wildlife sites, “33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and 21 Local Nature Reserves.

HS2 has all sorts of carbon offsetting schemes, but advanced and intricate pre-existing forms of carbon capture (historic, centuries old woodland areas) are irreplaceable. They are the backbone of our ecosystem, of our lives.

The project carries a threat of extinction to several species- it’s under investigation for several wildlife crimes. It has admitted it will never be carbon neutral during its lifetime.

The Oakervee Review declared it would cost £80.7bn to £87.7bn, against a budget equivalent to £62.4bn, whilst latest government estimates are that it could cost up to £98bn, and other voices saying it could go up to £170bn. Originally, the budget was meant to be 32.7bn. In other words, it’s already predicted to cost up to 6x more than originally set out and these predictions keep growing and growing.

As a project, HS2 fails to justify the damage it creates and the cost it incurs. The dilapidated state of our current rail network is in need of great renovation and this would be a much more environmentally sound, safe and cost-effective investment. Habitats of endangered species need not be bulldozed through for the sake of a 20 minutes quicker trip from London to Manchester.  

Protest

As a result, groups like HS2Rebellion and StopHS2 have emerged, bringing activists, locals and organisations together to resist. Through the law, petitions, education and direct action, these groups have been challenging HS2 wherever and however they can.

There have been multiple forms of direct action across the country. The Woodland Protection Camps, numerous independent camps set up since the project begun to occupy woodland areas HS2 plans to demolish, are perhaps the key network of resistance sites within England. Alongside the banner drops and online demonstrations, camping under diggers,  actively tunnelling under HS2’s Euston site, great escape style, and occupying it for a month, innovative direct action is flourishing in resistance to the climate catastrophe of HS2.


This is an inevitability when the petitions, legal action, letter writing, and all the conventional methods of expressing discontent don’t work. The people are comprehending the climate crisis, whilst also understanding that the bodies bringing about this crisis are doing it knowingly, intentionally, and with no desire to stop. Action against this, as a result, needs to be direct, radical and outspoken, as opposed to tepid, conventional, and often unheard.  

Direct Action

The police, bailiffs and HS2 have formed a strong coalition. HS2 funded a whole national police task force to police it’s operation, which has already cost £236,250.39 as of 2019. The National Eviction Team is a private group who have been in charge of most evictions of camps and other occupations and claim to be protester, squatter and traveller removal experts. The coalition of police, bailiffs and HS2 is powerful, and predisposed to be against protest, no matter how valid or legal.

How does this coalition work? When bailiffs stamped on an activist’s head till he suffered a spine injury at the Poors Piece camp eviction, the police demanded some activists hand themselves in before they allowed him access to a paramedic. A HS2 spokesperson decried “illegal and irresponsible actions of activists” as activists had their food and water lines cut off, faced a repeated kicking and several other incidents of assault whilst they were being, to quote HS2, “safely remove(d)”. Campers had been given permission to occupy the land by the owner. The three powers move as one to ensure the disaster continues. HS2 funds violence, bailiffs create violence, and the police enforce violence.

The police were filmed with their body weight on the neck of a black protester at Jones Hill Wood, a method of repression painfully similar to the (then recent) murder of George Floyd. Four bailiffs were suspended after they broke into a protesters car and broke their jaw. Bailiffs cut a 19 year old protester from a 20ft height, hospitalising them. All evictions have been violent, with a report being sent to the UN involving 400 incidents of unwarranted aggressive behaviour towards HS2 and anti-fracking protesters.

The Police

Environmental protests have always held particular interest from the state. The Earth Liberation Front, and other “ecoterrorists” were long described as the top of the FBI’s domestic terror threats, despite no record of them having killed anyone, nor caused significant wide scale harm to human health (compare this to the KKK for instance). As the #SpyCops scandal has rocked the UK recently, it’s been found that upwards of 46 police spies infiltrated animal and environmental activist groups. Only 5 infiltrated far-right groups, including Combat-18, the group which killed 3 people and injured 140 with nail bombs in London’s gay, black and Bangladeshi communities, from which only one spy was revealed.

The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, made infamous by the #killthebill protests, has been justified by Extinction Rebellion’s recent activity, with Priti Patel saying “I refuse point blank to allow that kind of anarchy on our streets,” and the bill being the manifestation of that threat. It also further criminalises trespass, which legalises immediate eviction and criminalisation of the HS2 protest camps (alongside the rights of GRT communities and squatters in the UK). Activist tunnelling under HS2’s Euston construction site was cited in a pro-PCSC research briefing to parliament in defence of new powers to criminalise public nuisance, aggravated trespass and wilful obstruction of the highway. It says the police would be given more ‘options’ to suppress anti-HS2 protests such as this. Climate movements continue to be a focal point of state repression, despite being consistently nonviolent.

What now?

HS2’s capacity to survive is only through more and more government funding/subsidies, which in turn provides more evidence for its illegibility, as it grows ever more expensive. It’ll never be carbon neutral, never be cost effective, and will destroy huge swathes of woodland in the process. Compulsory purchases of homes has meant many have been forced from their houses against their will. It’s one long, unnecessary death drive deeper into the climate crisis.

The police and state have long been the backbone of this death drive, in the many forms it has taken throughout recent world history. Over-policing of peaceful environmental protest, enabling and enacting anti-protester violence, and infiltration and espionage on peaceful activists. These things show us that police are not here to protect life, for the protesters are not threatening life, but to protect the property they are protesting against. Vis a vis, they exist to protect the ecological disaster this property creates.

Those who demand a livable earth must work to protect and preserve ancient woodland and forestry. We must continue to flow into the resistance camps, organise protest and resistance globally and locally, and educate ourselves and others on the situation. It is hope that rises from organising against it. Resistance to HS2 every day highlights the mind-numbingly intense contradictions of HS2’s thrust into England’s woodlands. The public expense, the environmental degradation, and the disregard for human life involved in this project (including for workers, who were forced to continue work throughout the pandemic) are unfathomable. Protest ensures that this isn’t hidden, isn’t unopposed, is fought on the ground and that our futures are protected.

It’s high time that people understood the police’s role in the end of the world. Real, tangible, direct action against the private property that burns us is necessary and inevitable. The police are the foundations of the reactionary movement against this. Visit the anti-HS2 camps, join the resistance to the PCSC Bill (#KillTheBill), and educate yourself on the ongoing struggle against HS2. A new world is growing from the ashes of the old.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves