Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham has launched a legal challenge against HS2, arguing that it will have severe negative impacts in a time of ecological and climate emergency.
The fresh legal challenge follows hot on the heels of last week’s Heathrow court ruling against a third runway on environmental grounds, a ruling which could have serious implications for future UK infrastructure projects.
Packham argues that the climate impact of HS2 is expected to be incompatible with any net zero emissions target, not least because the line will facilitate the large-scale expansion of airports across the UK.
Law firm Leigh Day has sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter on behalf of Packham, arguing that the decision to give the go-ahead to HS2 was unlawful because it relied on the ‘flawed Oakervee review process’ and did not take into account the full environmental costs of the project.
Packham said: “We live in a time of absolute crisis. Our future and that of the planet upon which we live and depend is critically threatened. Every important policy decision should now have the future of our environment at the forefront of its considerations.
“But in regard to the HS2 rail project I believe our government has failed. I believe the review central to the mandate to proceed was seriously flawed in its methods. I believe that essential submissions regarding environmental concerns were ignored by the review panel.
“As a consequence, the Oakervee review is compromised, incomplete and flawed and thus the decision to proceed based upon it is unlawful. Today some of us are making a last stand for nature and the environment and we will not go quietly into any good night.”
According to Packham, the Oakervee review failed to adequately provide a thorough assessment of the issues, including the environmental costs of construction and of climate change.
Packham also claims the Oakervee review was biased towards accepting HS2 evidence, and that important information, including in relation to environmental impacts, was difficult to access or not considered at all.
The legal challenge also says the deputy chair of the Oakervee review, Lord Berkeley, went so far as to state that ministers had “misled parliament” on the soaring costs of the project. The current estimate of completing HS2 now exceeds £106bn.
Since the initial environmental statement for HS2 Phase 1 in 2013, the government has signed the Paris Agreement and committed to a policy of achieving net zero by 2050. In his legal case Packham argues that the prime minister’s decision relies on the mistaken understanding that the Oakervee report had taken carbon emission impacts into account, such as the facilitation of airport growth and expansion outside of London.
In September 2019, Packham threatened legal action against the transport secretary’s decision to allow HS2 Ltd to press on with enabling works that would have caused irreparable damage to ancient woodlands along the Phase 1 HS2 route before the prime minister decided whether the project should proceed at all. The transport secretary conceded the challenge before it got to court and works at ancient woodlands were paused.
Tom Short, the solicitor representing Packham at law firm Leigh Day, said: “The government committed to base its decision of whether and how to proceed with HS2 on the output of a review that the public was assured would be rigorous and independent and would consider all the existing evidence and the full range of the costs of the project.
"Our client considers that the review has failed to meet those promised standards. He argues that the flawed process of the review means that environmental impacts relevant to the decision whether to proceed have not been properly assessed. In a time of unprecedented ecological catastrophe, he is clear that the law, and moral logic, require the government to think again.”
The department for transport (DfT) said they were considering the claims made in the challenge and would respond in due course.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We understand campaigners’ concerns, and have tasked HS2 Ltd to deliver one of the UK’s most environmentally responsible infrastructure projects. When finished, HS2 will play a key part in our efforts to tackle climate change, reducing carbon emissions by providing an alternative to domestic flights and cutting congestion on our roads.”
Packham’s legal challenge is being financed by online crowdfunding, and is well on the way to reaching its initial £80,000 target.