Proposals for an alternative HS2 route in South Yorkshire could involve a new housing estate in Mexborough being bulldozed. Chris Bond spoke to some of its residents.
“Welcome to Shimmer”. This is the message that greets you as you drive into this new housing estate just outside Mexborough.
A row of red flags emblazoned with the name ‘Strata’, the developers behind this smart Dearne Valley estate, flutter in the breeze as the soft scent of summer fills the air. The stylish yellow and red brick terraced houses, a handful of which are still being built, have a pristine feel.
It’s a quiet, pleasant place to live. But for how much longer? Earlier this month residents on the estate, made up of more than 200 homes, woke up to a letter from HS2 Ltd - the government organisation behind the controversial high speed rail project - informing them that their homes could be demolished to make way for a new route through South Yorkshire.
The HS2 line was originally due to link Rotherham and Sheffield, stopping at a new station at Meadowhall. But under these new plans, which would save £1bn in construction, the Meadowhall station has been scrapped and the line could now pass between Rotherham and Doncaster while a spur off the main line will link into the existing Sheffield Midland station.
The newly proposed route will run east towards the M18 before rejoining the original route south of the M62 and for those living on the Shimmer estate this would mean that “some or all of their land” may be required if the plans are approved.
The news came as a shock to the developers Strata, but for residents it has been a devastating bolt from the blue. Amie Webster recalls the moment she and her husband Mark found out.
“The letter dropped on to our door mat at five-forty-five in the morning. I remember because my husband was tying his shoes to go for a run. When he came back he opened the letter and that was the first we knew about it,” she says.
They moved into their new house 18 months ago but now face the prospect of being uprooted. “We thought we would stay here for 10 years and then move on, but obviously those plans have gone out of the window.
“There are a lot of families that have moved here and some of them used the Help to Buy scheme and they don’t want to move.”
Amie, a mother of one, feels the decision has already been made by HS2 bosses. “We didn’t want to move and we’re being forced out. We feel like we’ve been stitched up and the general consensus is that this decision has already been made. “There’s not much we can do about it so we’ve just got to make the best of a bad situation. We put all our savings into this house to make it a safe home for our family and now we’re going to have to do it all over again.”
For some residents, like James Tierney and his partner Jackie Feather who only moved in at the end of April, it has come as a devastating blow.
The couple, who are planning to get married in 2018, spent 12 months saving up to buy their new £97,000, two-bedrooom home. “This is our first house together and we’re in a state of shock to be honest. When we got the letter it was a bit like that feeling when you find out something’s happened to someone in your family,” says James, a supermarket assistant.
“We’re still quite young and we have jobs but for some of the older residents it’s heart-breaking,” he says. “The problem we have is we don’t know what will happen in the next 18 months but we’ll just have to stay calm and make the best of it.”
Sue and Peter Douglas also live on the estate. They moved in just over two years ago and intend to fight HS2 if they go ahead with their plans, which are expected to be ratified in the autumn.
“It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” says Sue, a retired deputy head teacher. “We are pensioners and this is our retirement home and when we first got the letter it felt as if someone had died. Now it’s pure anger. We want to get people together to fight this all the way.”
HS2 has told residents that those living in the so-called “safeguarded area’ will be paid the market value for their property based on what it was worth before the announcement, as well as a further 10 per cent in compensation.
But Peter, a former project engineer for Yorkshire Water, questions the HS2 pledge that residents will not be left worse off. “This is one of the cheapest areas in the country in which to buy property. You can’t buy a house like this for the same price anywhere else and yet they say that we won’t be worse off,” he says.
The estate, built on the site of Mexborough’s former power station which was decommissioned in the early 1980s, is seen as a sign of the area’s regeneration which is why Peter can’t understand the rationale for demolishing it.
“We’re just starting to see the regeneration of the area, there are new jobs and new families moving in and now that’s being undermined. We aren’t against HS2 per se but we feel it should have minimal disruption and that isn’t the case here.”
Sue agrees. “They say they want to build new homes and now they want to bulldoze them. Where are all the families and first time buyers going to go?”
Following the departure of David Cameron from Downing Street and the unpopularity of the HS2 project among some Conservative backbenchers there had been suggestions that Theresa May could scrap it.
However, incoming Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been quick to defend the project indicating that plans for HS2, which will serve stations in Sheffield, Leeds and perhaps a further “parkway” station on the route, would press ahead.
But the new South Yorkshire route has raised concerns among some local political leaders. Sheffield City Region Combined Authority chairman, Sir Steve Houghton, believes it is a cost-cutting measure and is not, in his view, the best option.
Shimmer estate residents have a high-profile supporter in the shape of former Labour leader Ed Miliband who has pledged to help them.
The Doncaster North MP said: “The more I hear about this proposed HS2 route, the worse it sounds. It will evict families from their homes and have a significant impact on parts of South Yorkshire’s beautiful countryside.
“The first thing we need to do is fight to try and stop these proposals by making the case for an alternative route. I will work with concerned residents, councillors, the Mayor of Doncaster, and other MPs, to do all we can to persuade the government of the case for it, based on the economics as well as the effects on my constituents.
“If the government continues to insist on riding roughshod over my constituents, I will also ensure we fight for the best possible deal for them.”
In the meantime, though, the residents of the Shimmer estate are left in limbo as they await news of a future they feel has been snatched out of their hands.
HS2 - new route has ‘best balance’
HS2 spokesman Ben Ruse told The Yorkshire Post that a new plan for the route and stations in South Yorkshire, outlined in a report by HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins, was not simply a cost-cutting exercise.
He said: “The new proposals are the result of a thorough review of the options in response to the clear lack of local consensus around the initial plans. While cost will always be part of the thinking, the new proposals are also easier to construct, provide better connectivity between Sheffield and Leeds and affect significantly fewer people than the Meadowhall option.
“Decisions like this are never easy, but based on these factors, we believe that the new plans provide the best balance and hope the region will come together to support them.”