High Court blocks London council's effort to halt HS2 works

A London council has failed in an effort to block works required to assist in the delivery of the High Speed Two (HS2) rail project after a judge ruled that the authority did not have the power to halt the proposals.

London's Royal Courts of Justice
London's Royal Courts of Justice

High Speed Two Limited - the government-backed firm tasked with delivering the project - wants to erect fencing and an earth embankment in a field near South Harefield which would enable a population of protected newts to be moved out of the way of a proposed viaduct which would carry trains across the valley.

The company had deemed permission to carry out the works under the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017 (the HS2 Act), but was required to seek the London Borough of Hillingdon's approval of its plans and the specifications of the proposed works.

Hillingdon, however, refused approval on the basis that the design and external appearance of the works should be modified to preserve a site of archaeological interest and nature conservation value. It said the development could reasonably be carried out elsewhere.

A planning inspector later agreed with the council, but the secretaries of state for transport and housing, communities and local government went their own way in March this year, upholding the company's appeal.

In ruling on the council's challenge to that decision, Mrs Justice Lang said: "The issues raised in the claim are potentially of importance to the determination of other applications for approval under schedule 17 of the HS2 Act."

Dismissing the council's arguments, the judge ruled that, on a true construction of the relevant parts of the HS2 Act, the onus was on Hillingdon to show that the design or external appearance of the earthworks ought to and could reasonably be modified to preserve the site of archaeological interest or that they could be carried out elsewhere.

The council, she added, had "not put forward any evidence" in support of those contentions and gave no indication as to how the works should be modified or whether it would be reasonable to relocate them.

She added: "Whilst the council and the inspector understandably took the view that the application should be postponed until after the further archaeological investigations were concluded, ultimately it was not their decision to make."

The judge ruled that it would would have been "a misuse of the council's powers (under the HS2 Act) to withold approval because it believed that the application was premature, as this is not a permissible ground for refusal."

The company had "explained in detail" how the potential adverse impact of the development on the archaeology of the site would be mitigated. Trial pits would be dug and surveys conducted, enabling the company to take appropriate action in the light of their findings.

Hillingdon's arguments that the secretaries of state had failed to give adequate or intelligible reasons for their decision were also rejected.

R on the Application of London Borough of Hillingdon v Secretary of Statae for Transport & Anr. Case Number: CO/1561/2019

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