In the middle of January a young man climbed a tree in the Colne Valley, just outside Uxbridge, in a bid to stop the corporation developing HS2 from cutting it down. After three days spent livestreaming the experience, he was removed by a team of specialist police officers and taken to hospital with hypothermia.
Boris Johnson officially gave HS2, the high speed rail link connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, the go ahead on Tuesday. Mark Keir, an activist who has been fighting the project for five years, camping on the frontline for two and a half of those, told Novara Media this means, “we’re going to have to show a little more desperation in our techniques”. But his remark begs the question, how much more desperate can tactics get?
Neither ambitious direct actions nor scathing revelations about the project have so far halted construction works. A recent report from the Wildlife Trust described nearly 700 habitats that will be destroyed by the project. Meanwhile, a report from Lord Berkeley, deputy chair of the Oakervee review into HS2, detailed how parliament had been deceived by the corporation about the true cost of construction works, which will be upwards of £100 billion. To put this into perspective, Labour’s election spending plan was for £150 billion. Yet the prime minister has still backed the scheme.
Defending the Colne Valley.
Local residents and activists have been fighting the project since it was launched in 2009, establishing protest camps in 2017 when work on the first phase, between London and Birmingham, began. At the moment, there are eight camps along the planned route, starting in the Colne Valley.
HS2 would have a severe impact on the Colne Valley’s unique ecosystems, which revolve around a rare type of river known as a chalk stream. The UK is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams, the rest are in France. A remarkable ecology of eels, kingfisher, bats, willow tits, rails and over 100 other species of bird reside here.
“This is a rarer habitat than the great barrier reefs,” Keir says, “and we’re destroying it”.
Protesters have also argued in court that HS2 construction work in the Colne Valley risks polluting the underground chalk aquifer that provides drinking water to 3.5m Londoners.
Despite the severity of the threat, the camps are maintained by an astonishingly small number of people – the Harvil Road site in the Colne Valley frequently has fewer than five activists defending it. The sacrifices made by these protestors have been huge.
At the end of 2018, Stop HS2 activists Sarah Green and Lora Hughes locked themselves to a digger en route to drill test holes into the aquifer. They were both arrested, though charges were later dropped.
Green, who runs river boat tours in the area, says she had no choice but to join the defence of the valley when her trips became more like horror shows of HS2’s devastation of the Colne Valley. To her, HS2 is an example of our culture’s tendency towards “self-mutilation and self-annihilation”.
When criticisms were put to Paul Thandi, the chief executive of Birmingham’s NEC Group, he told a local newspaper, “Unfortunately, this is progress in a western economy, but we’ve got to embrace it. Look at the M1, look at the M25, look at all of those big infrastructure projects. They’ve transformed the economy, categorically. This is another M1”. It is ironic, perhaps, that a large tract of rare wet woodland in the Colne Valley was destroyed to mine gravel to pave the M25.
According to Thandi, we should accept HS2 as just another feature of the ‘inevitable’ march of ‘progress’. But global heating, and the extraordinary harm it is causing to communities in the Global South, is calling this understanding of progress into question.
HS2 has claimed to be “supporting the transition to a net-zero carbon economy”, by reducing the need and incentive to fly. But it has been actively lobbied for by four major airports, indicating that they certainly don’t think it will decrease flights. In addition, a Guardian investigation recently concluded that after the emissions of construction and the increased emissions that high speed implies, “HS2 will not cut carbon emissions”.
Two different styles of activism.
Given the larger implications for the climate, it’s no surprise that Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group focused on the global climate and ecological emergency, have joined the fight to defend the Colne Valley. The partnership of XR and Stop HS2 suggests that the HS2 project does not just represent a waste of public funds, nor the loss of a small patch of greenery – it is a key frontline in the battle for climate justice in the UK. Or, as XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook puts it, “this is our Amazon”.
Johnson may not have been dissuaded by the disastrous implications of HS2 for local ecology and climate, but the protests still contain seeds of hope.
After the activist was hospitalised with hypothermia last month, XR and Stop HS2 organised a mass action to stop the felling of trees along Harvil Road. The action won before it began; HS2 cancelled all their planned works for the weekend.
The action both represented and perpetuated a cross-pollination of two different styles of activism; brazen frontline activists learned from the de-escalation tactics of media conscious XR activists and vice versa. This has happened on several other occasions too. For example, an evicted camp was recently reclaimed by a group of fifty calm and well organised activists comprising both XR and Stop HS2. Two XR activists, dedicated to keeping actions safe, informed the security of the plan at the fence. A moment later, a group led by the longstanding campaigners lifted the locked security fence out of the ground and passed it over the crowd. The group then calmly walked past the baffled security guards, answering their demands with grins and the old song ‘Power To The People’. The action was both bold and careful.
A healthy ecology of movements and strategies will determine what many expect to be the most important year for climate activism in the UK yet. Though it is unclear whether the prime minister’s announcement will catalyse a defence of the Colne Valley or not, resistors on the ground remain defiant. Their defence is vital and there is much to be learned by visiting for a few weeks, days or hours.
“HS2 is everything we need to change,” Keir says. “It is government, system, parliament, banking, industry; it is the whole thing rolled into one horrible little package. If anything is worth stopping, this is worth stopping.”
Greg Frey is an activist and writer.