To the west of London lies the Colne Valley regional park, an area of farmland, woodland, waterways and dozens of lakes. It’s also on the route of the controversial HS2 high-speed train.
Since 2017, the Save Colne Valley group has tried to impede the progress of tree-felling and other destructive development work, and the HS2 company has taken out various High Court injunctions and fenced off huge areas in their battle to continue. Last week, bailiffs and police forcibly ejected a woodland protection camp in what the activists claim was an illegal eviction – the officers failed to show any court papers to justify their actions. One tree-climber, Freeman, was eventually taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia after spending three days in branches with no food or water allowed up to him.
Extinction Rebellion, the climate and ecological action movement, has supported the protests for some time, since even HS2 Ltd themselves have admitted that over the next 120 years HS2’s carbon emissions will increase rather than decrease, and the tree-clearance for the project will be the most extensive since the First World War. A recent damning Wildlife Trusts report shows that almost 700 natural habitats will be impacted.
Colne Valley supplies around 20% of London’s drinking water, carefully filtered over many years through natural chalk layers. There is however an old Victorian toxic dump nearby and there are fears that holes bored by HS2 through the chalk aquifers could allow chemicals to contaminate the water.
The current plans basically connect domestic airports (Birmingham, Manchester, East Midlands) and they, along with Leeds Bradford, are all lobbying for it as they see the prospect of a direct connection to London as an opportunity to attract international flights and expand aviation.
The cost of the HS2 project has spiralled out of control and the latest estimates of £100 billion public money have been questioned by the Deputy Chair of the review, Lord Berkely, who resigned and spilled the beans with his own 70 page report which suggests eventual costs of more than £150 billion.
At the weekend, Hillingdon Council were planning road closures at Colne Valley in order to facilitate a new swathe of tree-felling on the evicted site, but activists from Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2 arranged to join the Colne Valley camp and despite half-hearted attempts by security men to close off a public right of way, they had to give in to numbers (as well as the incongruous sight of the ‘Red Rebel Brigade’ in the muddy woodland setting).
Supporters travelled from across the country, including Bridport, Leeds, Leicester and Cornwall, and after darkness fell they successfully re-occupied the camp area which had been evicted earlier in the week.
The pressure on Boris Johnson to cancel the project is coming from all quarters except of course the construction companies, land-grabbers, and airports. The resistance is building and more tree camps are springing up – veterans of the Roads Movement protests in the nineties remind us that those tactics cause huge delay and expense and were ultimately successful – the government at that time scrapped two thirds of its plans in the face of those protests.
Despite the mud, and the enormity of the task of stopping such a massive infrastructure project, among the protesters on Saturday there was clearly real hope and a sense that victory was possible.