High Speed 2

Tagged with: Casework status: Closed Casework type: Transport Site designations: SSSI
 Thames Gateway Futurescapes, sunset on A13 with Canary Wharf in background


The proposed high-speed rail link has prompted tough questions about how we plan our future transport needs, reduce our carbon footprint and protect wildlife.

In January 2012, the Government announced its decision to go ahead with developing its preferred route for 'High Speed 2' (HS2), a new rail route between London and the Midlands.

The route is being planned in two phases – Phase 1 from London to the Midlands, and Phase 2 from the Midlands north to Leeds and Manchester (the so-called 'Y-shaped network'). Further phases may extend the route to major Scottish cities. 

The Government claims that HS2 will bring some significant benefits for the economy and the way we travel. At a time of austerity and increasing concern about the impacts our travel choices have on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, it is important that the advantages claimed for this expensive project are rigorously examined. It’s also important that the impacts this proposal will have on wildlife, landscapes and communities along the route are properly understood and dealt with appropriately.


Why is it worth fighting for?

Few would argue that the UK's strategic transport infrastructure does not need improving.

The debate about whether HS2 is the right solution has been heated at times, with the scheme's supporters and opponents airing deeply held views about the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits.

No individual or organisation can pretend to hold all the answers to these issues, but we felt it was right to contribute our expertise on two key areas:

  • the impacts on wildlife (and how these should be addressed)
  • the implications for reducing greenhouse gas emissions given the overwhelming evidence of the need to prevent dangerous levels of climate change.

Phase 1 of HS2 is likely to damage important places for wildlife including three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and numerous local wildlife sites. Our responses to the various consultation documents since 2011 (see downloads below) included details of the likely impacts on some of the worst affected sites, like Mid Colne Valley SSSI and Bechstein's bats in the Bernwood Forest area of Buckinghamshire.

When the Government announced its intention to proceed with HS2 and a Hybrid Bill to enable the works to take place began its journey through Parliament, we continued to stress the importance of recognising and dealing with its wildlife impacts appropriately. UK laws and planning regulations lay down strict tests for considering developments that may damage wildlife sites – no less must be demanded of national infrastructure projects like HS2.

In early 2013 the Government published initial route maps for the phase 2 preferred route, connecting the Midlands to Leeds and Manchester. A further SSSI is likely to be severely damaged if the preferred route (Leeds arm) remains as shown in these maps, but overall the threat to nationally important wildlife sites appears relatively low from phase 2. We will look more closely at phase 2 when the opportunity arrives, and comment if we feel it is necessary.

The second reason we are involved in HS2 is that we think it is essential that the Government's transport and climate change policies are aligned. We are convinced that human-induced climate change is the greatest long-term threat to humans and global biodiversity. Studies suggest that up to one third of land-based species on earth could be committed to extinction by 2050 if we do not act to address this problem. Rapid and deep emission cuts are essential to avoiding dangerous climate change. An urgent challenge for the UK is therefore to tackle rising carbon emissions from land transport. 

We are concerned that HS2, as designed, will not fulfil its potential to reduce emissions because it has not been designed with this aspect in mind or brought forward as part of a coherent integrated UK transport strategy for long distance travel.

 RSPB Staff

Our position

We are prepared in principle to support high speed rail (HSR) over alternatives such as further motorway expansion or increasing aviation capacity because of the climate change implications.

Other strategic transport options would be significantly worse than HSR for the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, and would also have major impacts in their own right on wildlife, landscapes, landowners and communities.

However, we have raised serious concerns about the details of the HS2 proposal, especially about the way impacts on protected wildlife sites were assessed and dealt with. In May 2014 we decided to safeguard our position by petitioning against the Hybrid Bill.

Following extensive negotiations, in May 2015 we reached a point where we felt able to withdraw our petition, subject to several assurances by HS2 Ltd. In withdrawing our own petition we made it clear to the Select Committee that we would defer to our fellow-petitioner's evidence (and greater expertise) on a very small number of outstanding issues, such as impacts on bats.

We remain concerned that HS2, as designed, will not fulfil its potential to reduce emissions because it has not been designed with this aspect in mind or brought forward as part of a coherent integrated UK transport strategy for long distance travel. We were advised this was not a petitionable issue, so we continue to advocate a more integrated approach to the UK's transport challenges outside the HS2 Bill process.

Our full responses to the various HS2 consultations can be downloaded at the bottom of the page. You can also view a copy of our petition against the Hybrid Bill on the Government's website.


  • Future Milestones
    Subsequent milestones for phases 1 and 2 will include Select Committee hearings, and, probably, approval of the Hybrid Bill by Parliament. The start of construction depends on all the previous milestones being completed as currently scheduled. The Government currently anticipates HS2 from London to the Midlands going operational in 2026.
  • May 2015
    Following a series of meetings with HS2 Ltd and extensive correspondence over the details of assurances and undertakings that they were able to offer us, we felt able to withdraw our petition.
  • May 2014
    Our petition against the Bill was submitted on 23 May.
  • January 2014
    The final version of the Environmental Statement for Phase 1 is published before Christmas 2013: we respond in detail (see downloads on the right).
  • January 2013
    The Government publishes the initial preferred route plan for phase 2, from the Midlands to Northern England
  • January 2012
    The Government announces its decision to proceed with HS2, publishing small alterations to the preferred route consulted on in 2011
  • 29 July 2011
    The Government's consultation on HS2 closes – our response is submitted (see downloads on the right)
  • 7 April 2011
    A coalition of environmental campaigning charities, including the RSPB, launch the "Right Lines" charter setting out four core principles for doing high speed rail well (see link to the Charter, on the right).
  • 28 February 2011
    The Government launches the consultation on ‘phase 1’ of HS2 between London and the Midlands
  • March 2010
    The Government publishes its White Paper on the development of high speed rail. We provide a briefing on environmental issues for MPs


This case is now closed, in terms of our engagement with HS2 Phase 1 and the Hybrid Bill now being considered in Parliament. 

Our engagement with HS2 is not over – we will be looking at the environmental impact assessment for Phase 2 in coming months and will play a consultative role when the project construction gets under way (expected to be in 2016-17). In the meantime, we continue to discuss details of habitat mitigation and compensation with HS2 Ltd. But withdrawing our petition (see timeline) marks the close of our discussions with HS2 Ltd and the Government around points of principle on the first phase of HS2.

The best ways to give nature a home and support our work to protect special places are to join the RSPB as a member and to contribute to our appeals which help us engage with cases such as HS2 and hundreds of others that threaten our most valuable wildlife sites every year. For more details visit the campaigns part of our website.


Our response focuses on two significant issues: the first in relation to HS2 as a low option, the second on how impacts on biodiversity have been assessed and dealt with. PDF, 190Kb

High Speed 2, Phase One Environmental Statement Consultation

Our response to the draft Environmental Statement. PDF, 144kb.

RSPB comments on the draft Environmental Statement for phase 1 of High Speed 2

Outlining terms of reference including objectives and membership. PDF, 14Kb

High speed two ecology technical group (Phase 1) - terms of reference

Consultation response from The RSPB. PDF, 235Kb

HSR: Investing in Britain's Future