High Speed 2

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


The proposed high-speed rail link High Speed 2 (HS2) has prompted tough questions about how we plan our future transport needs in a way that confronts the climate and biodiversity crises.

The RSPB is part of a coalition of environmental organisations (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, WWF, ClientEarth and The Ramblers) calling on the Government to rethink HS2, the high-speed rail link that is planned to connect London to Birmingham and ultimately Manchester and Leeds.

This call comes amid growing concerns about the cost of HS2. The Prime Minister has commissioned an independent review of its business case to report by the end of 2019. We urge him to factor in the environmental cost of HS2, not just the financial cost.

HS2 is being planned in two phases between London, the West Midlands and the north of England. Phase 1 from London to the Midlands is in the early stages of construction. Phase 2 (the so-called 'Y-shaped network') is being brought forward in two sub-phases: 2a (West Midlands to Crewe) is being considered by the Houses of Parliament as a hybrid bill; Phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester and West Midlands to Leeds) is preparing its environmental statement prior to its hybrid bill being brought forward to Parliament.

At a time of increasing concern about the impacts our travel choices have on greenhouse gas emissions and climate, 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 taken into account in deciding whether paying the price for HS2 is really worth it.


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.

The climate and ecological emergency has brought into sharp focus the need for urgent action to address the causes and effects of climate change and protect and restore nature. The decisions we take now about how we approach development for the future, including transport infrastructure, will have far reaching and potentially irreversible consequences for our ability to do this.

To be considered truly sustainable, whatever solutions we adopt to meet our transport requirements must play their part in helping to address the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.

There is rising concern that far from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making the way we travel more sustainable, HS2 could in fact have the opposite effect, by facilitating increased international air travel in/out of airports in the cities it would connect with London, and by acting as a catalyst for further growth along the route that will necessarily also be served by road transport infrastructure.

Add to this HS2's failure to demonstrate that it will avoid unacceptable losses of irreplaceable habitat or achieve even its bare minimum target of "no net loss" of biodiversity, and the need to rethink HS2 on environmental grounds is clear.

 RSPB Staff

Our position

In 2010 and 2011 we supported The Right Lines Charter, which set out four principles for doing high speed rail well, including a proper national transport strategy and testing options, good public participation and minimising adverse impacts. Based on research we commissioned, we thought at the time there was significant potential for reducing carbon emissions compared to alternatives such as further motorway expansion or increasing aviation capacity. Other strategic transport options were seen as significantly worse than high speed rail for the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and would also have had major impacts in their own right on wildlife, landscapes, landowners and communities.

Our serious concerns about the details of Phase 1 of HS2, especially about the way impacts on protected wildlife sites were dealt with, are summarised here. (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.)

At the time it was being consulted on, we did not consider that HS2 Phase 2 (the northern extension via two routes to Manchester and Leeds) had such significant impacts on biodiversity of national or international importance that it would trigger intervention by the RSPB.

However, eight years on, it does not look like any of the principles of the Right Lines Charter have been followed in the way that we hoped for. We share the concerns of our colleagues at the Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust about the impacts on local wildlife; 108 ancient woodlands are at risk, as well as many other local wildlife sites. Irreplaceable habitats aside, HS2 has committed to achieving no net loss of biodiversity, but is unlikely to achieve even this. At a time when the Government is asking housing developers to provide at least 10% biodiversity net gain (and we think it should be even more), this is completely inadequate.

Far from being a low carbon option, even HS2 admits that there will be significant residual carbon emissions over the lifetime of the project, mostly arising from its construction.

It is increasingly difficult to see how any of this is consistent with the declared climate and ecological emergency.

As a truly national scheme, HS2 has become a totemic environmental issue and a test for the new government’s environmental credentials. There’s a window of opportunity for the Government to get on a different track.

It’s time to rethink HS2.


  • March 2020
    In a letter penned to the Department for Transport, the RSPB has outlined its disappointment with the current scheme, its experience of working with HS2, and sets out the major changes to the scheme which would be required to make it the leading scheme promised.
  • March 2020
    The RSPB and environmental organisations call on the public to identify breaches of the Wildlife Act during construction of HS2.
  • February 2020
    Channel 4 runs a HS2 exclusive, showcasing HS2 contractors flying a hawk in a Warwickshire woodland - a shoddy attempt to scare off breeding birds during nesting season. RSPB Operations Director, Jeff Knott, interviewed: “We are facing a nature emergency and should be working to help nature, not chasing protected birds out of potential nesting habitat to make way for this development.
  • February 2020
    Boris Johnson gives the green light to HS2 on February 11th. The decision comes despite mass criticism from environmental agencies regarding HS2’s inability to show net gain for nature and provide effective mitigation plans for species such as barn owls.
  • January 2020
    Beccy Speight joins a coalition of environmental organisations in signing an open letter published in The Times, explicitly stating that HS2 should not go ahead in its current form. Names on the letter include directors from the National Trust, Greenpeace, WWF, the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts.
  • January 2020
    A new report published by the Wildlife Trusts hammers home the potential impact of HS2 on wildlife. Figures suggest 31 affected SSSI’s as well as 20 Local Nature Reserves and 693 local wildlife sites (a total area of almost 10,000 hectares) are at risk. Onus is given to the impact phase 1 will have on the barn owl populations.
  • August 2019
    The Prime Minister commissions an independent review of its business case to report by the end of 2019. The review will be chaired by Douglas Oakervee, a former chairman of HS2.
  • 2017 - 2018
    With four local Wildlife Trusts and the Barn Owl Trust, the RSPB seeks to agree appropriate mitigation to overcome the likely impact on barn owls from Phase 1. In October 2018 all six environmental NGOs resigned from the process when HS2 Ltd were not willing to produce an effective plan. Joint letters to the Head of HS2 Ltd and the Secretary of State for Transport produced no significant concessions..
  • 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

What you can do to help

What you can do to help

Together we can persuade the Government to rethink their plans for HS2 and properly consider its environmental impacts.

As part of a coalition of environmental organisations, the RSPB is asking the Government to launch an independent review of the climate and ecological impacts of HS2, and to protect irreplaceable natural habitats like our few remaining ancient woodlands.

You can help by taking this quick e-action to ask your MP to support the call to rethink HS2. Visit rethinkHS2.org.

Want to do more?

Support the Woodland Trust’s campaign action calling for a halt to HS2 pending a full review of its environmental impact. Complete the simple e-action to send an email to Douglas Oakervee, Grant Shapps MP and Paul Maynard MP, asking them to rethink HS2.

Become an RSPB Campaign Champion

From lobbying your MP to taking to the streets to call on politicians to take action on climate change, there are lots of ways you can use your voice to speak up for nature as an RSPB Campaign Champion. Visit our Campaigning pages to find out more and sign up to make a difference as an RSPB Campaign Champion today.

Join the RSPB

As an RSPB member you will be helping to give nature a home and supporting our work to protect special places by engaging with cases such as HS2 and hundreds of others that threaten our most valuable wildlife sites every year. Find out more about the benefits of membership and sign up today, visit rspb.org.uk/join.


A summary of the RSPB’s representations on HS2 Phase 1, PDF 113 Kb

Summary of the RSPB’s representations on HS2 Phase 1

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