I’ve never seen anything like it...This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt I’m in a police state.
HS2 is often trumpeted as a major infrastructure project to reinvigorate the UK economy, drive connectivity and so bridge the gap between London and the North.
To its detractors it’s a vanity project set to take generations to build; gobble up £200bn; promote aviation (with stops along the route including Birmingham and Manchester airports); and trash 108 ancient woodlands.
Political temperatures are rising, with Thames Valley police and the National Eviction Team (NET), an HS2 sub-contractor, facing legal proceedings following the injuries of a number of protestors allegedly at their hands.
Campaigners claim that police and security guards’ working practices in relation to the policing of protest camps are being compromised by their close working relations with HS2 and its insistence on getting the work done without delay, even during the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak in April.
It was a number of more recent incidents at Denham Country Park near Uxbridge that fuelled the controversy. The most serious happened at the end of July (2020) when three police forces and 30 protestors clashed over the felling of a giant Alder tree.
In two separate incidents the ropes of two activists were cut and they fell from a rope walkway hung between the Alder and a tree on the other side of the River Colne. Lazer, a man of 19; and Swan, a woman of 37, fell 20ft and hit the shallow riverbed below, Lazer’s injuries requiring hospital treatment.
They had spent more than 12 hours trying to thwart teams from Thames Valley police heights team, the Met, the City of London force as well as the National Eviction Team (NET).
In the space of two days there were a number of injuries to protestors and a police officer, plus seven arrests for trespass and assault.
Stop HS2 Camps:
Save Cubbington Woods
Crackley Woods HS2 Protection Camp
Wendover Active Resistance Camp
Denham Ford Protection Camp (Binderella)
Save Roald Dahl Woods
Poor’s Piece Conservation Project
Calvert Reserve Protection Camp
A spokesperson for HS2 said the protesters were ordered (by police and security guards) to leave by a court injunction removing them from the area: “These protests are a threat to the security and safety of the public and our workers, and are costly to the taxpayer.”
A Thames Valley police spokesperson added: "We strive to balance the rights of those protesting, against those of HS2 to conduct their lawful business."
Major European rail projects entail not soley the line itself but the ‘enabling works’; the spur roads, the temporary access roads, the roads to the new developments, new stations, such as that at Euston’s Old Oak Common, Birmingham Curzon Street and Manchester Airport.
HS2 want the area partially cleared so an access road can be run through the forest for the re-siting of a nearby pylon which will then make way for a two mile viaduct over the Colne Valley.
I’ve never seen anything like it...This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt I’m in a police state.
Protestors are calling for the more costly option of using the adjacent Grand Union Canal to transport the pylon and so avoid irreparable damage to the nature reserve.
Two canal boat residents on the nearby Grand Union Canal agreed this was the better option and were outraged at police operations in the week preceding the two falls at Denham.
Graham Brooks, 59, told The Ecologist: “I’ve never seen anything like it. We were out walking the dogs when seven police vehicles turned up. Two officers said they were just looking around. Then 30 officers descended on the area with the express intention of arresting people.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt I’m in a police state. I was scared, intimidated. At one point it was suggested I couldn’t leave the area or I may be arrested. I was struggling to believe this was the UK.
“Security costs £60,000 a day because people do oppose it. Protection of the environment continues to play second fiddle when compared to costs and timetables.
“They’re using 200 year old laws against activists when newer laws which would protect the activists exist in common law and statute law.
“I’ve looked into this now being neither for or against and a line between Hull - Newcastle - Leeds would be more use to the north.
“Also you could electrify the whole network for similar cost if you were concerned about long term carbon emissions. I hope people question whether the police should be getting involved in this, they were there requested by a company.”
HS2 has a formal arrangement with the police. It is known as an Enhanced Police Service Agreement (EPSA) and the British Transport Police second an analyst, a researcher and a National Police liaison officer.
This gives HS2 and the police the ability to coordinate tactics across all 16 police forces along the route should major protests arise. It’s a special arrangement that HS2 initiated with the aim of obviating delays and keeping spiralling costs down.
So far around £336,000 has been outlaid on police with a year on year increases: in 2016/17: £31,261, 2017/18: £100,185, 2018/19: £104,803, and 2019/20: £125,782.
From 2016-2019, around £230,000 was also paid to various security companies. All these payments for security and policing form part of the budget for the building work, which has grown from £56bn, to £78bn in 2015, £88bn in 2019 and £109bn plus in 2020.
HS2 has also paid out £224,000 between 2018-2020 on a Home Office scheme to provide a contracted immigration officer - the officer works for the Home Office, but their wages are again paid for by HS2 - in a bid to purportedly put paid to the exploitation of migrants.
Although campaigners argue that is what HS2 is doing by flying in migrant workers and paying them below the living wage to work as security guards in dangerous proximity (incidents of the flouting of physical distancing regulations filmed in Denham) during the lockdown period.
Its contracts also take in G4S Risk Consulting Limited which it employs for controversial, Open Source Intelligence; a way of gathering information on potential risks to the work which can include surveilling protestors.
Embedded analysts and global risk intelligence analysts interpret data, and develop specific ‘risk-mitigation strategies’ as well as reporting ‘situational awareness’.
Stop HS2 campaigners at Denham have questioned whether the arrest of one of their number in August for alleged trespass and breach of bail conditions by undercover police officers was carried out after such surveillance.
High Court Enforcement Group’s (HCE Group) National Eviction Team (NET) which operates in the Denham area and Servest which has operations in Birmingham, are also on the payroll
These latter security contracts entail land and property warrant enforcement (compulsory purchase orders which force businesses and home owners to move if they are in the way of the route). They also cover the evictions of protest camps and the patrolling of the various project building sites.
Servest, which has a hiring policy typical of the other companies involved has had contracts in Birmingham with pay rates for guards at barely subsistence levels of £8.75 an hour.
Security guards supporting the NET climb teams at Denham are dressed in orange hi-viz jackets and are often found to have been flown in from countries with cheap labour (India, Nepal) during lockdown to work outsourced contracts of 12 hour shifts for £8.50 an hour.
As well as its part in the late July protests, NET has faced criticism after a young protestor Seb, 19, lost consciousness following a guard’s choke-hold up a tree earlier in the year.
NET carried out the infamous Dale Farm Traveller site eviction and a number of high profile road protest site evictions as well as recent anti-fracking camps. There is no mention of this partnership on the HS2 website’s list of contractors.
It does talk up the ‘low carbon future’; getting freight off the roads and displacing diesel emissions. The HS2 Rebellion campaign (from XR members) points to the fact that no mention is made of the stress to water levels.
The drinking water implications are one of the main planks of their campaign: HS2 construction relies upon huge volumes of water to drill its boreholes (an estimated 6.5m litres a day for 36 months for its boring machines) with aquifer contamination an ever present danger.
With European droughts becoming more severe, long lasting and commonplace this poses a real drain on Thames Valley and Arriva water resources in the coming months and years.
The website does mention hundreds of thousands of trees planted - although campaigners point to die-off of the majority due to lack of after-care at Harvil Road near Uxbridge, for example.
They claim habitat loss is hidden by tree shredding machines so it doesn't look like trees were felled in the first place and the evidence of bat roosts and birds’ nests which are illegally tampered with if done during April to October disappears.
Protestors further complain of human rights abuse by the security guard encampments at the various protest camps - lights and generators being kept on throughout the night aimed at the camps to deprive them of sleep - while at the same time interfering with patterns of natural habitat.
Swan, one of the Denham Wildlife Protection camp residents told The Ecologist: “Not everyone wants to live at Denham as it’s the front line.
"We know they’re planning to deforest full pelt from September so that’s the end of the bat roosting season so we’ll be preparing to get as many people as possible involved through mass participation actions.”
HS2 Ltd claims it will plant around 7m new trees in all.
Dave Bangs, a leading UK botanist and author of The Land of the Brighton Line (2018), a field guide to land bordering the mainline, said: “Ancient woods have biodiversity built upon four centuries of old growth so like for like planting and felling is ineffectual - you can’t replace an old wood with a new tree plantation, once they are gone they are gone forever.”
The UK Wildlife Trusts (46 local trusts) point to 33 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and 21 Local Nature Reserves at risk and close to 700 Local Wildlife Sites (LWS) set to be part-damaged or destroyed by the HS2 route.
The 2019 review by Douglas Oakervee, (HS2 Ltd former chief executive) which gave the HS2 project its seal of approval, acceded this point that ancient woods by definition cannot be replaced.
The economic argument between supporters and opponents hinges on whether this is simply a project to even up wealth and lower carbon emissions into the bargain - the major northern cities becoming as rich as London with a trickle-down effect of economic good fortune to all the regions in between.
The current chair of HS2 Ltd Mark Thurston is earning over £660,000 a year, making him the Government’s best paid official
Certainly contracts awarded to the likes of Tory donors, Murphy (road-builders) and Skansa (construction) have courted controversy since the PM Boris Johnson gave the go ahead for the project in February.
Compulsory purchase orders have been criticised as being iniquitous; so on the one hand people who can afford it like Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father, who received £1m for land near his home in Euston, compares with a local man who had lived in his house 45 years and was handed ‘a pittance’.
And this is part of the draw for Stop HS2 camps whose younger demographic believe this inequality is innate.
The protesters are becoming more and more established and as soon as person goes, others form. They include eco-activists, local campaigners, and Extinction Rebellion members.
So when Harvil Road camp, also near Uxbridge, was evicted in June some of the ‘tree protectors’ gravitated towards the Denham Wildlife Protection Camp.
As one of the most beautiful areas of greenbelt land, this area to the north west of London has a confluence of rivers and some priceless ancient woodland redoubts. The Rivers Fray and Colne are teeming with life: pristine waters with eels, bream and lustrous river weeds.
The perceived natural value/capital of the land is precisely why the protests comprise middle Englanders as well as the usual environmental activists.
In environmental circles the question being asked more widely is, will the protests like this one make even a dent on such a vast project?
Shaping up into a cause celebre along the lines of Twyford Down, Newbury, the M11 and Solsbury Hill rolled into one will this campaign have the same impact?
Those 90s protests effectively stopped two thirds of a roads programme at that time, could this one stop Phase 2 with Phase 1 scheduled to open in 2026.
These later phases 2a Birmingham to Crewe and 2b Crewe-Manchester and Birmingham to Leeds, are slated for completion in 2027 and 2033 respectively although a seven year delay is a conservative estimate of where we are at currently.
HS2 has certainly taken maximum advantage of the lockdown and effectively worked through it which has led to the project gaining ever more momentum now that the main contractors are part way through of what is the largest construction project in Europe - a shovel-ready project no less with massive cross party support.
HS2 supporters like Paul Bigland and his pro HS2 transport and travel blog believe the activists with ‘limited legal knowledge and back-up’ will be crushed as a minor irritant, having underestimated the sheer size of the HS2 project.
This isn’t merely some local bypass they’re trying to stop after all, he argues, pouring scorn on even their arboreal knowledge - claiming that their labelling of the giant Alder as 600-years-old rather than its probable 60 years, was telling.
So is it just a longshot that the underdog with the combined strength of direct action; the continuing legal challenge of Chris Packham; and the righteous anger of middle England over woodland carnage and rising costs put a spanner in the works?
The latest development agreement between the government and HS2 in 2018 is heavily redacted and shows that the PM has rowed back on his claim to draw a line under mismanagement of the past with the appointment of Andrew Stephenson as HS2 minister.
But the vaunted transparency has been cloaked under commercial sensitivity. Review points which the first phase failed to meet have now been scrapped.
In July the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) gave it its highest risk rating at red, based on its take on the whole HS2 operation in September 2019. Red ratings are given to schemes when 'successful delivery' appears to be elusive.
Latest independent estimates put the value for money ratio at between £0.66 for each public pound spent (Lord Berkeley review 2019) and £1.40 by the Institute for Government (2019) meaning it ranks as a poor value project.
Jan Goodey is an environmental journalist who contributes regularly to the Resurgence & The Ecologist.