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Protests could add £200m to cost of building HS2

The cost of removing protesters from tunnels has spiralled into millions of pounds, HS2 bosses have told MPs considering the Public Order Bill.

Protests could add up to £200m to the cost of the high speed rail project HS2 by the end of 2023, MPs have been warned today, in an attempt to ensure such actions are made illegal.

In a written submission to the Public Bill committee, HS2’s chief security and resilience officer John Groves said that protests thus far have already added £126 million to the cost of the project. 

Protests involving people tunnelling under railway works have proved particularly costly, with an estimated £4m spent removing protesters from a tunnel in Buckinghamshire last year.

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“Experience has shown that protestors pay more heed to criminal law (under which they can be arrested) than they do to civil restraints,” Groves wrote, “and tend to stop short of conduct that results in arrest and a possible criminal conviction.

“HS2 Ltd hopes that the measures proposed in the PO Bill, if passed, will give the criminal justice system the tools required to deal with unlawful, dangerous, and damaging protest activity.”

The bill has been widely condemned as draconian and undemocratic, however. Organisations such as Amnesty International, Liberty and Big Brother Watch have all submitted evidence detailing how the legislation poses “a direct threat to the right to protest”.

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Amnesty said the bill “would seriously curtail human rights [and] fail the three-part test of legality, necessity and proportionality” adding that “the provisions within it are so vague, undefined and open to subjective interpretation that they are likely to be unlawful from the outset”.

The European Court of Human Rights has warned that “any measures interfering with [these rights] other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles – however shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used may appear to the authorities – do a disservice to democracy and often even endanger it.”

The Public Order Bill is largely made up of anti-protest measures the government failed to push through in the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which was significantly watered down by the House of Lords and fuelled a year of Kill The Bill protests.

Where the PCSC Act made it illegal for protests to make too much noise, the Public Order Bill seeks to criminalise acts such as “locking on” to infrastructure such as roads or railways..

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HS2 is a high speed rail project which plans to link London to other major cities in the UK. Phase one involves linking London to the West Midlands, and is expected to open between 2029 and 2033.

The project has been dogged by delays and controversy, however, with the government scrapping plans for a leg to link Leeds to Manchester last year. 

Environmentalists have also condemned the project as a threat to ancient woodlands throughout the UK

According to the Woodland Trust, 108 ancient woodlands are threatened by the project, though the charity is currently recalculating the figure based on recent changes to the project.

HS2 disputes this figure, saying that only 43 of the country’s 52,000 ancient woodlands will be affected, accounting for just 0.005 per cent of the total.

Several high-profile protests have taken place over the project, with six environmental protesters walking free from court in October after occupying a tunnel near Euston for 31 days. 

The protesters celebrated when they walked free from court and welcomed the judge’s decision, with one protester saying at the time:

“We shouldn’t have been in court in the first place because HS2 shouldn’t have been happening. Our plan is to stop HS2. Aggravated trespass charges were completely the wrong ones to level against us.”

The government is currently considering a new bill – the Public Order Bill – to clamp down on similar protest action. 

“Interfering with key national infrastructure” is mooted as a new offence to be introduced as part of the bill. 

In his submission to the committee considering the bill, Groves said the HS2 project has seen an “increase in the impact of protestors on HS2, with violent, dangerous, and illegal activity a common occurrence in protests at HS2 sites”.

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He added that the estimated costs of removing protesters are likely an underestimate as they do not include “programme delay costs, policing, local authority costs, or the additional security costs to maintain a safe and secure compound once protestors have been removed”.

Groves accused protesters of deliberately creating risk of harm to themselves and HS2 operatives, adding that direct action protest has “appeared less about expressing the protestors’ views about HS2 and more about causing direct and repeated harm to HS2 with the overall aim of ‘stopping’ or ‘cancelling’ the HS2 project”.

The submission indicated HS2’s support for the Public Order Bill and its measures to “reduce the impact of protestors on projects such as HS2”, saying that the current legal framework is “inadequate” for dealing with the issue. 

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