The teenage climate campaigner discusses her week underground, and why she doesn’t like being labelled ‘Britain’s Greta Thunberg’
On January 27, several environmental activists entered a network of tunnels under central London’s Euston Square Gardens, protesting the controversial transport project HS2. “We will not be coming out any time soon,” the activists told press and authorities. “We will last as long as we can down here, but we can’t put a date on that.” Sure enough, they’re still occupying the tunnel more than a week later, and moved deeper last night (February 4) as an HS2 eviction team breached the down shaft, where one protester remained locked-on and peacefully resisting removal.
Dug in secret over the course of several months, under the cover of a tent, the tunnels are intended to prevent the next stage of work on the high speed rail link, which would allegedly involve building a temporary taxi rank over the green space. HS2 Rebellion – an alliance of groups and individuals opposing the project – believes that the land, once used, will be sold to developers.
“The whole thing is a badly disguised land-grab,” says 18-year-old environmental activist Blue Sandford, “which is happening all up and down the line and screwing over so many people.”
HS2 Rebellion outlines several reasons it opposes the project on its website, citing environmental concerns, the planned demolition of hundreds of homes, and excessive costs (a government review leaked in 2020 says the approved target budget of £30 billion could soar to over £100 billion, the Guardian reports). Specifics of the environmental impact include biodiversity loss, the destruction of ancient woodlands, and a failure – according to HS2’s own forecasts – to cut carbon emissions.
Blue is currently living in the tunnel, alongside several other campaigners. “We’re all doing really well,” she says, adding that they recently celebrated a week since they started their occupation. “Everyone keeps on saying they can’t believe it’s been a week because it’s gone so fast, I think because there’s always something happening with the bailiffs, and we weren’t getting much sleep so we were all really tired. But we’re settling into a bit of a routine now.”
The weather, though, poses an ongoing problem. “My sweatpants are completely soaked and the bailiffs took my spare pair of trousers,” says Blue.
Last week, veteran campaigner Daniel Cooper (AKA Swampy) told the BBC the situation was unsafe due to overnight rain, explaining that there’s not enough room for people to get out if the tunnel were to collapse. “Not being able to stand up or really move around is difficult,” Blue adds. “We tried doing some stretches earlier and found none of us could touch our toes anymore cause we were so stiff.”
The group intend to stay underground for as long as it takes, or until they’re removed. Occupying the tunnels – and therefore delaying development – gives time for public outcry and court cases to mount against HS2, Blue explains, and the media storm generated by the tunnel has already put the transport project firmly in the public eye.
In the meantime, they have books, cards, and Uno to keep them occupied (“it’s getting quite competitive”). Blue says that so far “there hasn’t been a dull moment“ anyway: “the bailiffs are always doing something, or an interview’s going on, or someone’s rung us to send their love and make sure we’re doing okay.”
“My activist friends are telling me they’re all so proud and inspired, but a lot of them are really scared for me – they’ve experienced first hand the violence and incompetence of the National Eviction Team.”
The present activists tell Dazed that the NET (bailiffs leading the effort to remove the tunnel occupants) have created “dangerous situation after dangerous situation”. Their attempts at removing them are “destroying the structural integrity of the tunnels,” Blue says, “and could cause major collapse”. On Tuesday, a high court judge rejected an emergency application by protesters, seeking to stop HS2’s eviction process due to safety concerns. HS2 Rebellion also reports that Peter Faulding, a specialist in confined space rescue operations, has been denied access to view the site.
“Most of my non-activist friends have had a strong ‘what the fuck’ reaction,” Blue goes on. “I haven’t seen anyone for ages because of COVID, so seeing me in the news is the first they’ve heard about the tunnel. My parents are scared and heartbroken, and trying to help me however they can.”
Extinction Rebellion has also expressed solidarity with HS2 Rebellions’s efforts to help halt the project, having previously called on the Department of Transport to stop funding destructive projects. On February 2, four people associated with XR climbed onto the canopy of HS2 Ltd’s London offices, unfurling a banner that reads: “Essential work should heal not harm.” Others have occupied the trees in Euston Square Gardens.
The climbers are calling for the work at #Euston Square Gardens to stop until a full safety assessment has been carried out to ensure the wellbeing of the people in the #tunnels, in line with the High Court order from Mr Justice Robin Knowles last night. #LoveRageRebel#ActNowpic.twitter.com/1muuRUcptY— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) February 2, 2021
Calling it “the most damaging infrastructure project the UK has ever seen,” Blue characterises HS2 as “a key battle in the fight to stop the climate and ecological emergency. The government has declared an emergency but they aren’t trying to stop it – with projects like HS2 they are actively perpetuating it. We’re facing extinction.”
Unsurprisingly, parallels have been drawn between Blue Sandford and Greta Thunberg, since Blue was named a “British Greta Thunberg” by the Times in 2019. Thunberg’s calls on world leaders to do more about the climate crisis have inspired a wave of environmental activism worldwide, and Blue has taken part in the school strike movement that she helped kickstart. “But as flattering as it is to be compared to her,” Blue says, “I don’t like the label.”
“It’s a tactic – making it about her rather than her activism, building up one person and making them synonymous with the campaign so that if they make a mistake it will reflect badly on the whole thing. This fight is not about individuals, it’s about societal collapse and the deaths of billions.”
“At the same time, if the mass media algorithm needs the comparisons and labels, and that’s the only way we’re going to get mainstream coverage, then I’m glad they at least picked such a cool person.”