There was much jubilation across the infrastructure supply chain when Boris Johnson finally gave the HS2 rail project his blessing last month – the Civil Engineering Contractors Association positively gushed. Cynics, meanwhile, pointed out that the 45-minute travel time from Birmingham Airport to London enabled by HS2 would effectively make a third runway at Heathrow unnecessary – very conveniently for the prime minister, who had once promised to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” in order to stop construction of the third runway. (He was subsequently re-elected to his Uxbridge constituency which sits right under the Heathrow flight path).
In the end, though, it was the environmental lobby that put the kibosh on the third runway – by pointing out that the government had broken its own rules by failing to take into account the scheme’s climate change impact.
Broadcaster and environmental campaigner Chris Packham then wasted no time in preparing a legal challenge to HS2 on exactly the same grounds: that the project fails to meet the government’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change and its pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
It will be exquisitely ironic if a high-speed rail project, lauded by its proponents as a fast, efficient and sustainable alternative to the motorway network, were scuppered on environmental grounds.
And what would such a decision mean for other major public sector projects?