£33bn rail scheme faces legal threat

LOBBY groups said yesterday that legal challenges to a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham are already in the pipeline, after the controversial new route was given the green light by the government.

Campaigners against the planned rail link, dubbed High Speed 2 (HS2), will attempt to place the Department for Transport’s approval procedure under judicial review on grounds of a lack of environmental analysis and gaps in the expected planning costs.

Pressure group 51m, made up of 18 local authorities that oppose the government’s plans, has set its team of legal experts on the case and now has six weeks to file a legal challenge.

First proposed by the Labour government in 2010, the £32.7bn construction project will see the Birmingham to London commute cut down to 45 minutes by the completion of its first phase in 2026. The second phase will extend the line, carrying trains travelling at 225mph, to Manchester and Leeds by 2033.

The government estimates that HS2 will generate benefits of £47bn and fare revenues of £34bn over 60 years.

Transport secretary Justine Greening yesterday revealed an array of alterations to the original consultation package designed to appease MPs and residents along the route, saying: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites.”

However, for many this was not enough to justify the project. Douglas McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, called the claim that alternative plans would not provide enough capacity “complete nonsense”. Joe Rukin, Stop HS2 campaign coordinator, said: “It is not a question of whether there will be a legal challenge via judicial review – it’s how many there will be.”

The government responded to criticism that HS2 would deface the Chiltern Hills by proposing to build over 56 per cent of the railway in tunnels or cuttings.

This includes a continuous tunnel from Little Missenden to the M25 that it yesterday admitted would cost £1.86bn to build – despite previous estimates speculating that the figure would be in the realm of £500m.

The tunnels have been seen as a concession to MPs in the Tory heartlands surrounding the Chilterns who voiced strong concerns regarding the local impact of the new line.

Cheryl Gillan, the Tory MP for Chesham and Amersham who was prepared to quit over the original plans, said yesterday she welcomed the changes.

While some business leaders have been notably averse to HS2, including Next chief executive Lord Simon Wolfson and former director of Barclays Bank Lord Nigel Vinson, others accepted yesterday’s governmental approval on the grounds that it would improve business, increase travel capacity and advance the UK’s global position.