Chris Packham is seeking an urgent injunction to immediately halt HS2’s destruction of ancient woodlands as campaigners criticise construction teams for allegedly ignoring the government’s physical distancing rules for coronavirus and endangering local people.
The naturalist and broadcaster’s £100,000 crowd-funded legal challenge includes requesting a judicial review of the government’s decision-making behind the £106bn high-speed railway and an interim injunction to stop “enabling” works scheduled to destroy swaths of five ancient woodland areas in April.
Campaigners have accused HS2 contractors of using the coronavirus crisis as cover to speed up the tree-felling without scrutiny.
“HS2 are shamelessly using Covid-19 as an opportunity to cut down the ancient woodlands that they know have nesting birds, during nesting season, because they think there will be no witnesses,” said Joe Rukin of the StopHS2 campaign. “The coronavirus pandemic is not a good day for HS2 to bury bad news – it’s a good couple of months to do what the hell they like.”
The RSPB has urged HS2 not to clear woods during the April–September nesting season. Destruction of active birds’ nests is illegal, and the charity has asked local people to report any incidents they see to the police.
Five ancient woodlands are the focus of HS2 “enabling” works: Broadwells Wood, Birches Wood, Crackley Woods and Ashow Road Wood in Warwickshire, and Fulfen Wood in Staffordshire.
Packham, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, is seeking an interim injunction from the high court to halt all clearance and construction works, which he claims will cause irreversible and irreparable loss of designated ancient woodlands and disturb European protected species and nesting birds.
Packham is then seeking a judicial review of the decision to allow HS2 to proceed, on the basis that it is unlawful because it was predicated on the findings and recommendations of the Oakervee Review. The naturalist and broadcaster said the review – by a former chair of HS2 Ltd – failed to provide an independent, impartial and rigorous appraisal of relevant environmental and climate change factors.
Activists have constructed treehouses in the five woods and are seeking to self-isolate, but the alleged failure of HS2 construction workers to follow physical distancing protocols has been condemned by many communities.
Rukin said the HS2 construction effort posed a serious risk of spreading the virus. “Contractors are coming in from all over the country, mixing and paying absolutely no attention to social distancing rules. At the Crackley compound, we’ve had contractors from Bedford, Swindon, Liverpool, Peterborough, Preston and Birmingham.”
A number of MPs have this week written to HS2 Ltd’s chief executive, Mark Thurston, detailing residents’ concerns and urging him to halt all construction work during the emergency.
Bailiffs began evicting campaigners at Crackley Woods on Thursday and Friday, an operation involving dozens of security guards and police officers. Some protesters remained in treehouses, while others balanced on rope walkways to evade eviction.
Rhya, a local woman who did not want to give her full name, has a lung condition that puts her in the high-risk coronavirus category. She is self-isolating in a treehouse. “I haven’t been climbing very long, so this is all new to me, but it’s the safest place to be and I feel quite happy up here,” she said.
Her main fear, she said, was construction workers not following distancing guidelines: “It’s worrying when 20 or so of them are working in groups, continually walking past.” But she said she would remain there as long as necessary. “I feel strong enough to want to. It’s disgusting what they’re doing, what they’re taking.”
Packham said: “You’ve got to feel sorry for the contractors and the police. The police don’t need to be out in the woods at a time of national crisis. They are being put in a position where their safety is being compromised because of political aims and it’s disgusting for the government to treat the police in that way.”
Greg Smith, the MP for Buckingham, said: “In this time of national emergency, where it is paramount that people stay at home unless absolutely unavoidable, it is outrageous that HS2 Ltd are carrying on with works that are simply not urgent.”
He said people in villages in his constituency were frightened by the influx of HS2 contractors from all over the country “potentially spreading the virus”.
Smith was sent a video of an HS2 contractor appearing to deliberately cough on a resident to make them move. “Whether that’s a real cough or he was putting it on to frighten them, it is subhuman behaviour at this time of medical crisis where the government is trying to do everything possible to stop the spread of this virus.”
In a statement responding to the coughing allegation, the HS2 contractor Fusion JV said it had now paused work at that site. “We are aware of the video which was filmed prior to the shutdown and investigating the circumstances. The health and safety of our staff and community are our top priority.”
HS2 has released a statement pledging to pause work on a number of sites. However, in footage taken by campaigners at some locations since that statement, work appears to be continuing.
An HS2 spokesperson said: “The health and safety on the site is the responsibility of the individual contractors. We’ve been clear that they need to follow government advice, and so far most of our contractors have decided that they cannot continue work in line with that advice. Some sites in the West Midlands are still operational because we have been assured that the kinds of works they are doing are limited in scale and they can reasonably continue within the social-distancing rules. But that is under constant review by them and may well change in the near future.
“The government hasn’t instructed construction sites to close down. We’re a government-funded and government-directed project and we have not had that direction from government. Even within the last couple of days, we’ve had government ministers saying construction sites can remain open. We can’t start making up new rules.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The construction industry has not been asked by the government to stop. HS2 Ltd is reviewing the majority of works on its construction sites in line with government guidance.”
Laing O’Rourke and J Murphy & Sons, the contractors overseeing the Warwickshire sites, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Packham said: “[HS2’s] cost on the ground to rare wildlife, endangered habitats and important green spaces is profound. The carbon cost is unacceptable and fundamentally incompatible with our necessary net zero obligations.
“The cost to the public purse, which is about to rupture due to the current catastrophe, both human and economic, is absurd. We must stop HS2 as soon as possible – for all life on Earth.”