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Supreme Court Boosts High-Speed Rail Proposals

Railway PlatformThe Government’s controversial plans for a new high speed rail link between London and the North (HS2) have been boosted after the Supreme Court rejected arguments that there had been a failure to comply with European environmental protection laws and that the proposed means of steering the proposals through Parliament was inappropriate.

The proceedings arose from the Government’s decision to promote the scheme and to set forth its proposals in a command paper entitled ‘High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps’ (DNS). The paper confirmed the Government’s strategy and outlined the process by which it intended to obtain development consent for HS2 through two hybrid bills in Parliament.

A campaign group opposed to the plans, HS2 Action Alliance Limited, launched judicial review proceedings. Their claim was upheld in relation to certain aspects of the consultation process which led up to the publication of DNS, but was otherwise dismissed. The group’s challenge to that decision was rejected by the Court of Appeal.

In unanimously dismissing the group’s appeal, the Supreme Court rejected arguments that the publication of DNS should have been preceded by a strategic environmental assessment under Directive 2001/42/EC (the SEA directive). The proposed hybrid bill procedure was also compliant with the procedural requirements of Directive 2011/92/EU (the EIA directive).

The Court noted that the purpose of the SEA directive was to prevent major effects on the environment being predetermined by earlier planning measures before the environmental impact assessment stage is reached. DNS contained an elaborate description of the HS2 project and there was no constraint on the autonomy of Parliament in considering the proposals. Until Parliament had reached its decision, the merits of every aspect of the HS2 project remained open to debate.

Noting that HS2 is a project of national importance and political significance, the Court was not persuaded by arguments that the hybrid bill procedure envisaged by the Government would constrain adequate examination of environmental information by Parliament. There was no reason to suppose that members of Parliament would be unable properly to examine and debate the proposals and, in those circumstances, a preliminary reference to the European Court of Justice was not necessary.