LONDON (Reuters) - Protesters blocked construction sites along the route of a planned high-speed rail link on Monday, aiming to stop swathes of British woodlands being felled for a project that has also faced criticism over spiralling costs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson backed the scheme, known as HS2, in February after protracted wrangling within his Conservative party over whether to proceed with the plan to improve connections between London and northern England.
“This tree is threatened by HS2 as are thousands up and down the country, but we can stop this,” said Larch Maxey, one of several protesters who scaled a tree near an HS2 site outside London’s Euston station, in a video posted on social media.
Activists blocked at least 20 vehicle entrances to various sprawling HS2 sites in the counties of Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire and in the Colne Valley west of London, as well as at Euston, organisers said.
The protesters said they were observing social distancing measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and were wearing protective masks.
Although protesters have been occupying clearings and treehouses for years, organisers said they had staged the action in London to draw national attention to the prospect that 108 woodlands will be damaged or destroyed.
HS2 said the project would create thousands of jobs and contracts for small British businesses, and described the protests as dangerous, costly and unacceptable.
“This is an important investment in the UK’s future as we recover from the pandemic,” said an HS2 spokesperson. “We’d urge all green groups to help us in getting people out of their cars, off planes and onto low-carbon, high speed rail.”
A review was carried out last year into whether HS2 should go ahead, after its predicted cost rose to a reported 106 billion pounds ($130 billion), almost double the bill five years ago.
HS2 and its critics dispute a wide range of issues, from the potential economic impacts to whether it can help achieve Britain’s target to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Supporters say HS2 would give Britain the kind of fast rail services enjoyed by some European countries and help spread economic opportunities outside the capital.
James Brown, a Paralympic gold medallist and environmental activist, described HS2 as a “colossal white elephant.”
“It must be stopped and we just divert its funds to supporting the NHS,” Brown said, referring to the National Health Service.
Reporting by Matthew Green; editing by Stephen Addison