The controversial HS2 rail project has gained an influential new opponent in the Church of England, after officials expressed concern that the construction of the route will desecrate thousands of graves.
The Archbishops’ Council, the church’s central executive body led by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, has submitted a petition to the House of Commons asking for a revision of the HS2 bill.
The much-criticised project, which looks set to go ahead after a Commons vote in April, will run from London to Birmingham by 2026 and to Manchester and Leeds by 2033.
However, the petition warns that the bill does not offer sufficient protection to human remains that will have to be exhumed to make way for the route.
According to HS2 Ltd, three consecrated burial grounds – at Euston, Stoke Mandeville and Birmingham – lay in the path of the development. Each of the disused sites was closed to burial over 100 years ago, but thousands of graves will be affected.
The petition says that current provisions “do not do enough to ensure that during and after the removal of remains they are treated in a decent and reverent manner or that they are subsequently reinterred in consecrated land”.
It adds, “This is inconsistent with the approach taken in other legislation which provides for the compulsory acquisition of land and its use for statutory purposes.”
In a statement, a Department for Transport spokesman said, “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.”
Speaking after the Commons vote, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said he expected to see “spades in the ground” by 2017. Despite a Tory revolt involving over 30 MPs, the project received firm cross party support to get the green light.
Supporters say that only HS2 can provide the increased capacity that UK’s rail lines will need in the future, warning that if the project is scrapped, a similar project will still be required in the future at a higher cost.
It has also been claimed that the north of England will be badly affected if the project does not go ahead.
However, the new objections from the Church of England are only the latest in a series of damaging statements of concern over the impact of HS2.
Environmental campaigners have complained that the official environmental impact assessment of the project demonstrates “a shocking disregard” for England’s wildlife.
MPs have also criticised the government’s aim of ensuring the project does not cause a net biodiversity loss as being unambitious.
Offering an alternative vision, the Wildlife Trusts have urged the government to use the project to restore communities and countryside across the UK.
The Trusts say that for less than 1% of the total HS2 budget, developers could maintain a 1km strip of “wildlife-rich landscape” on either side of the line. This would have both social and economic benefits, such as reduced flood risk and more resilient towns and countryside, the organisation says.