HS2 protests, Euston Square, London; photo by Ardfern – inset photo of Rollie
Ben Northam interviews Rollie, 17 about taking a stand against high-speed rail line
For 31 days, protestors from the direct action group HS2 rebellion occupied an elaborate tunnel network under Euston station. Now, a few weeks on from the eviction of the last protestor, Rollie, 17, who occupied the tunnel for 10 days, speaks out on why she as a young person from Hartlepool, North-Eastern England travelled to London and put her safety at risk to protest the high-speed rail line.
The HS2 project, predicted to cost up to £230 billion, has long been embroiled in controversy, but in recent weeks the underground encampment at Euston has put questions about the project’s viability back onto the national stage. Proponents claim the train line will allow for shorter commuting times between London and Birmingham and will “level up the country”.
However, campaigners argue these claims are unfounded and negated by the project’s myriad of environmental and social impacts. For campaigners, HS2 is not an isolated case and is symbolic of a wider political problem where large scale infrastructure projects such as coal mines, airport expansions and road-building programmes appear attractive due to their flashiness and marketability of ‘progress’, ‘levelling up’ or ‘job creation’.
Residents have had their homes bulldozed, vast construction compounds have been erected and age-old street trees have been sliced apart
In reality, Rollie who six months ago decided to move full-time to the Stop HS2 camps says, “HS2 is the pinnacle of wealth disparities, class inequalities and social injustice in the UK. One day, working-class children are going to learn the truth and they’re going to want to know why their friends’ stomachs rumbled with the stripping of free school meals, why their vulnerable relatives couldn’t seek medical attention in a global pandemic due to an underfunded NHS; why their schools can’t afford textbooks as a result of slashed funding; why every inch of precious greenery in their area has been decimated at the hands of suited fiends. They’ll one day want to know why each taxpayer was robbed of thousands annually to pay for the hellish project.”
Works associated with the high-speed rail line have been sending shockwaves throughout the borough of Camden, North London in which the tunnel protests took place, for years.
Residents have had their homes bulldozed. Vast construction compounds have been erected and age-old street trees have been sliced apart. Unfortunately, the land taken by HS2 in Camden is just one chapter in the HS2 story, a story of home dispossessions, illegal evictions and unsanctioned brutality against the natural world. To put the extent of land being taken into perspective, for phase one alone HS2 set to acquire 35 square kilometres. The city of York in its entirety is 34 square kilometres.
Opponents of the project state the majority of the land being dispossessed belongs to working-class people, farmers and those who run small businesses. Campaigners also say that the negative impacts on working-class people “extend far past land dispossessions” referencing non-payments, the destruction of jobs and the increasing privatisation of locally and commonly owned land.
The few remaining arguments for the controversial project centre around ‘levelling up’ and ‘delivering the Northern powerhouse’.
Campaigners also argue the decision to build yet another fast transport link to London, neglecting actual investment in the North, will actually drain workers from the North
On this, Rollie says, “A project that takes a million times more than it gives is simply just theft and criminality dressed up in a vanity beholding suit and tie. For decades the North has been underfunded by those in the ivory towers of Westminster. For decades, working-class people in the North have been ordered to pay the price for a debt that was never theirs through the stripping of necessities, funding and land to pave the way for desolate and destructive industry – we shall no longer stand complicit in this.”
For campaigners, the HS2’s Northern levelling up agenda is a claim without any teeth. Interestingly, the conclusions reached by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) set up by Boris Johnson last February matched the campaigner’s sentiment. The NIC undertook an assessment of major British rail schemes. One of its primary conclusions in regards to HS2 was that, instead of building the Eastern leg (Birmingham to Crewe), prioritising regional links in the North would in fact deliver much greater local economic benefits. These findings do not chime well with the claims of unprecedented economic wealth the project will supposedly bring to the Northern regions of England.
Campaigners also argue the Department of Transport’s decision to build yet another fast transport link to London, neglecting actual investment in the North, will actually drain workers from the region, further reinforcing London’s status as the economic and business hub of the country. Campaigners see it as a commuter shuttle whose benefits will only be used by the middle and upper classes.
Humanity is at a crossroads. We are clinging to a precipice. The next moves we make have the potential to initiate an uncontrollable cascade of ecological collapse
Instead, they state that there is an alternative. By upgrading already existing local transport links, revitalising Britain’s numerous abandoned railway and in some cases building lines to connect small towns, working-class people would actually reap the benefits. By focusing this investment in the North we could build an integrated transport network, connecting the areas which actually need increased connectivity. At the same time we could found these progressive steps on an unwavering commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship; something HS2 has time and time again proven it cannot do.
Rollie states, “This project is coming for working-class homes with bulldozers and battering rams. It’s coming for natural paradises with diggers and chainsaws. Yet, HS2 will rapidly exchange golden-green paper havens for the land of golf courses where the elite do play. When HS2 has finished, our natural wonders will be completely decimated, biodiversity will have rapidly declined, the fight for social justice will have staggered backwards and wealth disparities will have steeply inclined.”
Humanity is at a crossroads. We are clinging to a precipice. The next moves we make have the potential to initiate an uncontrollable cascade of ecological collapses or to act as the foundational steps for a world where ordinary citizens can get back into the driver’s seat and decide our futures for ourselves.
Occupiers of the Euston tunnel have called for a citizen’s assembly for HS2 to be set up. They say this is necessary due to the magnitude of its socio-economic and environmental impacts as well as the extortionately high projected cost.
As businesses increasingly move towards a more home-working friendly model and doubt over the project’s viability grows, we need to ask ourselves, in these unprecedented times, is HS2 actually needed? Is it worth the desecration of our countryside and is it really the silver bullet of investment the working class and the North so urgently need?
Ben likes listening to UK based music, getting outside and researching theories on ancient civilisations.