Campaigners opposing the UK Government’s high-speed rail project, HS2, have lost their latest legal challenge concerning the London-Birmingham Phase 1 section of the scheme.
The Government was accused of unlawfully failing to carry out a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) which might help to alleviate problems being caused by the flagship rail scheme for local people and businesses. However, three appeal judges unanimously rejected the challenge.
Objectors had claimed that large areas along the route would be unnecessarily hit by a costly planning blight for an indefinite period.
At a hearing last month David Elvin QC argued that an SEA was required before 'safeguarding directions' could be made by the Transport Secretary to protect Phase 1 land from local councils giving planning permission for other, conflicting developments.
Mr Elvin, representing the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA) and Hillingdon Council in west London - both of which are campaigning against the current scheme - said ''generous'' areas of land extending beyond the route were protected because they might be required for temporary storage of spoil, or for compounds, work access or other functions in relation to the project.
Mr Elvin argued that the land had been included without any proper debate or assessment of environmental impacts or alternative options, saying, “The effect of this is to blight development in the land covered by the direction for an indefinite period and without an SEA which might have enabled the impacts to be minimised or avoided”.
However, Lord Justice Longmore, Lord Justice Sullivan and Lord Justice Lewison agreed that an SEA was not required before safeguarding directions could be made.
Lord Justice Sullivan said the appeal court was dismissing the campaigner's appeal for reasons which "largely echoed" those given in the High Court. He said the Government was pursuing HS2 through "specific legislation" in Parliament and not through any "plan or programme" affected by the European Directive on SEAs.
The campaigners’ appeal was against a decision made by High Court judge Mr Justice Lindblom in August to throw out its case.
After the ruling, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin called for opponents to HS2 to end their "fruitless" court cases.
Mr McLoughlin said: "The courts have once again rejected a legal challenge against HS2 as they have done on repeated occasions. The Government has now won 20 out of 21 challenges to the project.
"I invite interested groups to work with us to make HS2 the very best it can be, and not waste more public money on costly and fruitless court cases.
"HS2 will deliver jobs, skills and free up space on our congested network for more trains and more passengers, that is why we are continuing to press ahead with the Parliamentary process which will ensure spades in the ground by 2017."
The high-speed rail project continues to divide opinion in Parliament. Speaking before the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, former Tory chancellor Lord Lawson described HS2 as a "fancy, vanity project" and said he found the economic case put forward for the line "profoundly unconvincing". Conservative peer Lord Griffiths also questioned the economic case for HS2.
Lord Deighton, the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, responded to criticism of the scheme saying, "There is no room for more trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML)", adding that unless something was done “there's going to be an awful jam between here (London) and Birmingham”.
The first phase of HS2 between London and Birmingham is designed to take pressure off the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML).
The Government is also backing a new east-west rail line, dubbed HS3, across northern England, which already has the support of northern council leaders.
Mr McLoughlin said both schemes were needed: "It's not a case of HS2 or HS3. I don't think it's one or the other. East-west links are part of the issues and solutions."
Asked how confident he is that the £50 billion cost for the project will not rise, Mr McLoughlin cited the £14.8 billion cross-London Crossrail project as an example of a big project that is coming in on budget and on time.
David Prout, the Department for Transport's HS2 group director general, said, “We think our costs are robust.” He added that the £50 billion figure, which includes £7.5 billion for the trains, was based on 2011 prices.
Mr Prout said no decision had yet been made about who would run HS2 once it was built. There would be an annual cash return to the Government from the running of the line and this money would go into the "overall pot of money used to run the rail system".