CofE objects to High Speed Rail plan

02 June 2014


Opponents of HS2 protest in front of Parliament last month, before a House of Commons debate on the proposed link  

Opponents of HS2 protest in front of Parliament last month, before a House of Commons debate on the proposed link  

UNTIL a "decent and reverent" burial is guaranteed for the thousands of human remains currently residing in its path, the proposed High Speed Rail link (HS2) should not go ahead, the Archbishops' Council has told MPs.

A petition from the Council to Parliament, published on Monday, urges MPs not to pass the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill in its current form. It calls for "ecclesiastical safeguards" to ensure that the human remains that will be exhumed in the construction of the line will be buried in consecrated ground "in a suitable manner".

The Bill, published in November, gives the Government the powers to construct the first stretch of the proposed railway line, from London Euston to Birmingham. Construction is expected to begin in  2017, with trains running from  2026. The second phase would see the line extended to Manchester and Leeds.

The construction of the first section of the route will necessitate the exhumation of thousands of human remains, as three consecrated, disused burial grounds are destroyed at Euston St James Gardens, in St Pancras; the old church of St Mary, Stoke Mandeville; and at the Park Street/Curzon interchange in Birmingham.

The petition complains that the Bill does not make "adequate provision to ensure that during and after the removal of human remains they are treated in a decent and reverent manner or that they are subsequently reinterred in consecrated land. Nor do they make adequate provision to ensure that any monuments that are removed are disposed of in a suitable manner." It points to better provision in other legislation, such as the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which states that diocesan bishops should be able to set conditions before consecrated land is seized.

Individual churches near the line have also petitioned MPs. The Church Buildings Council has produced reports on two of those most affected. It notes that HS2 will "severely impact" on St Mary & St Nicholas,  Chetwode, a Grade I listed 13th-century church, situated less than 200 metres away from the line. "This exceptionally quiet and serene rural location would be irrevocably compromised." The Archbishops' Council hopes to secure compensation for individual churches, if the line goes ahead.

On Monday, a Church of England spokesperson said: "The C of E is not opposing HS2 per se. Rather we are petitioning for a technical change to the Bill, i.e. we are opposing the Bill in its present, in our view technically deficient, form. It is simply a matter of re-instating a clause which can be found in other legislation relating to development and has been left out of this Bill."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "Throughout the development of HS2, burial grounds have been avoided as far as practicable. We understand that the removal of human remains to enable HS2 to progress is a sensitive and emotive issue, which is why this issue is specifically dealt with in the Hybrid Bill and why HS2 Ltd recently published a paper setting out how it would deal with affected burial sites along the route. Though the affected burial sites at Euston, Stoke Mandeville, and Birmingham have not been in use for more than 100 years, HS2 Ltd. will ensure that the affected remains are treated with dignity, respect and care."

HS2, which will cost £43 billion to build, has considerable cross-party support but is contentious. The Government argues that the line  is "vital to meet the urgent rail capacity needs on the main rail routes into London". It also has the support of the British Chambers of Commerce and the Trades Union Congress.

Shortly before the publication of the Bill, a YouGov poll suggested that more than half (53 per cent) of the public was opposed to HS2; 27 per cent were in favour. Opponents argue that it is a waste of money and will damage the environment (News, 29 July, 2011 and Letters, 5  and 12 August, 2011).

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