The climate protesters living in tunnels under Euston Square Gardens, London have now been underground for two weeks. In their stand-off against the high-speed rail project HS2, they say they’ve broken a record – the longest UK tunnel occupation in two decades – and endured “torture” from bailiffs attempting to evict them, including sleep deprivation from 24-hour noise.
Fellow protesters have been removed by the National Eviction Team (NET) from trees and treehouses in the gardens above, and mature trees there have already been felled by HS2 contractors to clear space for a taxi rank. But the protesters in the tunnel and their allies are adamant that they can still win their fight against the controversial rail project.
“We wouldn’t do it otherwise,” Scotty, 46, tells me over the phone on Tuesday from his spot underground. “Living conditions are a bit inconvenient down here and it’s a little bit cold,” he says, as snow falls outside and temperatures linger below freezing.
But the veteran protester, who has previously lived in tunnels as part of the Grow Heathrow campaign against a proposed third runway and at another HS2 protest, is “quite happy here. It’s been absolutely epic in grasping media attention and getting our message out there”.
Fellow activist Swan is equally optimistic. Although above ground now, she has been at the frontline of the struggle against the rail project herself, having fallen 20 feet after her climbing rope was allegedly cut by NET agents during a protest on the outskirts of London in July 2020. (Complaints were made to the Health and Safety Executive, which determined there was “no case to answer of a provable breach of health and safety law”.)
“We absolutely can stop HS2,” Swan says. “We don’t have a choice. We’re in a climate and ecological emergency, this is the biggest infrastructure project since the second world war, and in its whole lifetime it’s not going to be carbon-neutral.”
Two of the nine tunnel protesters, including 17-year-old Rollie and 20-year-old Lazer Sandford, have left the tunnel in the past week and been arrested. Scotty says he intends to stay underground for “as long as possible,” surviving on tinned fish, beans, cereal bars and chocolate.
Tunnels allow protesters to occupy the land for longer than locking themselves to trees, for example, because removing them safely is even more of a delicate operation. But with the numbers of protesters dwarfed by the bailiffs closing in, to what extent are they only delaying the inevitable? The government has shown a staunch commitment to pressing ahead with HS2, and the Euston tunnel is one episode in a series of ongoing direct actions against it over several years. Could the activists actually stop Phase 1 of the project from pressing ahead?
“It’s very unlikely,” says Dr Steve Melia, a transport expert at the University of the West of England, who has just released a book titled Roads, Runways and Resistance: From the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion, on 30 years of direct action against transport schemes in the UK. Melia has been twice arrested himself for participating in XR protests, though he is not involved in any HS2 protest. “I’m not aware of any campaign in Britain that has ever stopped a transport infrastructure scheme once it’s started.”
But the sacrifice required for this form of protest is “almost always worthwhile”, he says, “though rarely in the way that protesters or their opponents imagine. Activists motivate themselves and others to continue making sacrifices by making themselves believe that they can physically stop work on a scheme, from under a tunnel or in a tree or in front of a bulldozer, and that rarely, if ever, happens. But what it does do is impact public opinion”.
For their part, the activists against HS2 seem fully aware of this, referring as Melia does to shifting the Overton window – the space of ideas considered politically acceptable by the mainstream public at a given time.
Or as Melia puts it: “Non-violent direct action relies on sacrifice – on people seeing the sacrifice activists are making and empathising with that. But even if the vast majority of the public look in horror at the people in tunnels underneath Euston, it will be shifting the Overton window.”
With the media attention it generates, he says, “this protest will be creating more political space for other people to calmly and rationally explain why HS2 isn’t a good idea, and is certainly not a good use of that huge amount of money. Radical direct action makes what the ‘respectable’ environmental organisations say seem less radical and more mainstream.”
As Scotty’s phone signal cuts out intermittently, he talks about the anti-roads protests of the 90s as proof that such action can be effective. These protests – which elevated Dan “Swampy” Hooper, also in the Euston tunnel with his 16-year-old son Rory, to celebrity status – “lost all the battles but won the war,” Melia says. While they failed to stop major roads from being built, such as the Newbury bypass in Berkshire and the M11 Link Road in east London, they led to a dramatic scale-back of the Conservative government’s Roads for Prosperity scheme, which Margaret Thatcher had heralded in 1989 as the "biggest road-building programme since the Romans”.
The cost caused by protesters delaying construction work is likely to have played some part in this. At least 600 security guards were deployed to the Newbury bypass protest at the cost of £25 million – a fifth of the total cost of the road’s construction. Campaigners have also claimed that figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that direct action against the M11 extension contributed to a doubling in costs.
But public opinion played a much bigger role in the government’s volte-face, Melia says. The anti-roads protests, which “struck a chord” with a generation who associated tunnels with British prisoners of war escaping the Nazis, were followed by dramatic swings in public attitudes towards road-building and the environment. And while Phase 1 of HS2, which will connect London with Crewe via Birmingham, will almost certainly go ahead, direct action against the project may similarly “tip the political balance,” Melia says.
It could help bring about the cancellation of Phase 2 of extending the line to Manchester and Leeds, particularly as the political case for HS2 has suffered numerous setbacks over recent months. The pandemic has seen a sharp fall in commuting and experts say passenger figures are likely to be permanently reduced.
The National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the government, has questioned the benefits of extending the rail line beyond this point, calling for improvements to existing regional rail services instead. The project is also controversial with the public, with a poll in August 2020 finding the highest share of respondents (41 percent) opposed to it. The prospect of a double-dip recession looks set to spark further questions about HS2’s price tag, which could rise to £170 billion, according to the deputy head of a government review of the project.
The NET has previously told VICE: “The National Eviction Team would like to reiterate that safety of all concerned is their priority. These tunnels are very dangerous and the National Eviction Team, a division of High Court Enforcement Group, is aware that, through their risk assessment and the protesters’ statements in various media, the protesters have previously experienced a collapse and water ingress to their tunnel and their lack of experience puts them at risk”.
On the 1st of February, the High Court rejected an emergency application made by one of the protesters, Dr Larch Maxey, to halt their eviction from the tunnel on safety grounds. It ordered the protesters to leave the Euston tunnel, and ordered HS2 to facilitate the protesters’ access to their legal team.
On Wednesday, the High Court once again rejected a bid made by the protesters to pause their eviction. HS2 released the following statement: “We urge Dr Maxey to comply with the order as soon as possible – for his safety and the safety of the other activists and the HS2 and emergency personnel tasked with removing the illegal trespassers. HS2 will continue its operation to safely remove the illegal trespassers currently occupying an underground tunnel in Euston Square.”
What might the protesters do next? Melia says the current Euston action is “a major shot across the bows for the later phases”. If the activists want to increase their chances of success, he says, they should be “thinking strategically, [asking themselves] ‘how can we get the message across that this is just the start’?”
They seem to be thinking the same thing, too. Just before Scotty’s signal finally disappears, he tells me there are already “more tunnels like this”, elsewhere on land earmarked for the train line, waiting to be discovered.