The Shimmer Estate in Mexborough has become emblematic of the controversy surrounding HS2, with the newly-built estate directly in its path. Some residents have already moved on but others are determined to stay put - despite the estimated number of planned housing demolitions being trebled last week. Chris Burn reports.
It took little over a month for Becky Quartermaine’s dream move to a new family home to turn sour. The teacher, her husband and their two children had been living in their cherished new property on the Shimmer Estate in Mexborough, South Yorkshire, for less than five weeks when they woke up to some shocking news: their new home was directly on the path of the revised HS2 route through Yorkshire.
“We moved in on June 3, 2016 and on July 7, 2016, I came down to a letter that had been shoved through the letterbox,” explains Becky, sitting at her kitchen table. “It said due to HS2 they have to take some or all of your land. I thought it was a wind-up.”
The change of route came about following Sheffield Council campaigning against the original plans for a new HS2 station at Meadowhall to the north of the city. But instead of a new station being built as had been hoped, the Meadowhall option was scrapped in favour of HS2’s cheaper option of adopting the existing Sheffield station to support high-speed trains. The main line was moved east towards the M18 and now ran through previously unaffected farmland, businesses and homes, including Shimmer, in the Rotherham and Doncaster areas - without the benefit of a dedicated HS2 station for South Yorkshire.
The Shimmer Estate is so new that work on was still taking place when the HS2 announcement was made. Construction on the site had begun in 2012 and by summer 2016, 166 homes had been completed with 46 still to be built by developer Strata.
But two years down the line, building work on the site has understandably ground to a halt. The single road through the estate has not been fully covered in Tarmac, a children’s play area promised to new buyers has never been created and Becky’s back garden is overlooked by the shells of half-finished houses.
HS2 has declared all of the estate as being eligible for full levels of compensation for homeowners that wish to leave but up until last week, claimed only 16 properties would require demolition – despite its plans to build a giant 62ft-tall viaduct directly above the site.
An environmental impact report published last week increased the estimated number of demolitions on the estate to 52 and added a further eight properties that would require to be pulled down on the nearby Doncaster Road.
Becky, whose two children are aged 18 and 21, says residents initially banded together in the hope that HS2 would change their minds but many have now moved on, being replaced by rental tenants after their homes were sold to the Department for Transport, which is overseeing the HS2 scheme.
But she is among the remaining Shimmer homeowners who have decided that despite the uncertainty about the future to stay put in their spacious properties for as long as they can. Finalised plans for the route are to go before Parliament in 2020, with construction due to start in the mid-2020s ahead of the line being operational from 2033.
“Some people decided they were going straight away but it took over a year to leave,” she says. “It is getting to the stage where people don’t want to hang around. But I don’t want to move, I have bought my dream home. I don’t want the hassle of moving.
"We didn’t come to buy one of these houses, we were passing by to look at somewhere else and it was as though it was meant to be. My husband said ‘let’s go in there’. As soon as I walked in, I loved it. We had moved in within 10 weeks.”
Becky says she is not surprised by the increased number of demolitions that are planned. “We don’t know which houses it will be but I think through the process of elimination it will probably include ours. We always knew they were lying about the numbers so it wasn’t a surprise. My view is it is going to be a lot more.
“I’m hoping this will be the final nail in the coffin for HS2, there are real questions to answers now and Parliament has to ask them.”
One of Becky’s neighbours, Katie Winnell has taken the same decision to stay put for the time being.
“For what we can afford, we are not going to get anything else similar,” she says. “It is a bit of a Catch 22 – we don’t want to leave but don’t want to be stuck here with no choice. It is a like a bad dream – you wonder how are they getting away with doing this? The upsetting thing is even if they now said they are not going to do this route, we are still in the same position on an estate no one wants to move to. The damage is done, you can’t go back.”
But among those who have made the decision to move on are former project engineer Pete Douglas and his wife Sue, a retired deputy headteacher. The couple moved to a smaller property five miles away in April, having been at Shimmer since summer 2016.
After renovating their new property in Mexborough, Pete says the couple, who are in their mid-60s, were only offered the same valuations as others who had made no home improvements, meaning they lost out on thousands of pounds. He says they have moved on with mixed feelings.
“We are extremely grateful to put it behind us. We have lost an awful lot of money – £18,000 on the purchase and sale of the house. We had a new-build property and spent £15,000 on upgrades to it straight away. But people who spent nothing on their house got exactly the same price we got. They just said it is market value.
"As of today we are still awaiting the final payments of what we are owed. We moved six months ago and we have been promised it and promised it but it hasn’t materialised. We can’t get rid of HS2.
"We were sad to see the community breaking up, we had made some nice friends. There are not many places with a four bedroom property overlooking the canal, it was just gorgeous. You try finding the same type of property with the price HS2 give you - it can’t be done. We have moved to a much smaller property."
Pete says the couple were “absolutely gobsmacked” in 2016 when they found their new home was on the new HS2 route.
“We had searched HS2 before we purchased the house and it came up all clear. The initial thought was we will fight it, they can’t have decided to knock a whole estate down.
“The more we dug into it, we found lots of evidence it was the wrong thinking. There was lots of evidence which questioned the costings and the number of demolitions they were putting forward."
Following the news of the extra planned demolitions in Mexborough, Doncaster Council reiterated its view that HS2 “could have been delivered more easily, with less impact and better outcomes if they had stayed with the original proposals and a station at Meadowhall”.
An initial presentation given by HS2 in December 2016 suggested there would be 43 demolitions – 27 homes and eight commercial/industrial buildings – on the new M18 route. But by last year, this had climbed to 51 demolitions, including 35 houses, compared to 141 on the originally-planned Meadowhall route. Now on the 10-mile section of the route alone which passes through Mexborough, it is expected that 63 homes and nine commercial/business properties will need to be removed.
HS2 has admitted demolition numbers could climb further, saying the latest estimates are not “final figures” and the design is “continuing to evolve”. But it also states it is possible not all 52 properties earmarked for demolition on Shimmer may actually be removed.
Local councillor Sean Gibbons, who represents Mexborough First, is calling for a public inquiry into the actions of HS2.
“HS2 have lied to make this route look more favourable compared to Meadowhall. The cost is spiralling out of control. In any other context, in private industry, heads would roll.
“As far as we are concerned, enough is enough. I think if there is a public inquiry, the whole thing will be cancelled.”
But for the foreseeable future, it looks unlikely that HS2 will reverse course – particularly given it has previously stated the new route will save £1bn compared to the original Meadowhall option. It means Shimmer will make way for a 800m-long viaduct reaching up to 19m in height, something HS2’s own reports admit “would result in a major adverse effect which would be significant”.
But for current and former Shimmer residents, the impact is not theoretical but already very real. As Pete puts it: “The change in demolition numbers validates everything we said from day one. HS2 blatantly lied to us that it would only be 16 houses.
"Looking at the project on their own figures and their own data, it will still be quicker to get a train from Doncaster to London after HS2 has been built rather than going to Sheffield. If they had built a station at Meadowhall, it would have made more sense for South Yorkshire.
"Personally, I think they should abandon the whole thing before they spend even more money. HS2 have treated people with contempt.”
HS2 says it has been 'clear' about evolving plans
HS2 officials say they have “always been clear” there would be changes to the expected impact of the route running through Yorkshire.
An HS2 Ltd spokeswoman said: “We have always been very clear that our early plans for the railway between Birmingham and Leeds would continue to evolve.
“On October 11, 2018 we published new information outlining the land required to support construction of the railway as it travels through Mexborough. This does represent an increase in the number of properties required and we have always been clear that this would be the case. Recognising the unique nature of the Shimmer Estate, the whole development was safeguarded in 2016.
"This enabled all eligible homeowners to sell their property to the Government and receive compensation over and above the statutory minimum.
“The Working Draft Environment Statement sets out our commitment to reduce the impacts of the railway during construction and operation. Working with local communities, and in line with their responses to the public consultations, we will continue to focus on minimising those impacts wherever possible.”