Villagers taking on Government in bid to derail multi-billion pound HS2 plan

Susi Kakkar with her plaquard in the  village of Church Fenton
Susi Kakkar with her plaquard in the village of Church Fenton
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To some it’s vital to Britain’s economy. Not the villagers of Church Fenton. They tell Sarah Freeman why they fear HS2 is the Great Train Robbery Part II.

When Susi Kakkar looks out of the window of her small study the scene rarely changes. In winter there’s the occasional dusting of snow on fields which stretch as far as the eye can see. During summer you have to squint to see the fishing lake through the leafy cluster of trees.

Welcome to Church Fenton. The village, which lies in between Leeds and York, is a peaceful kind of place, but it won’t remain that way if the Government ploughs ahead with its plans for HS2. Those fields have been earmarked for the line’s northern extension which will leave Susi and the rest of those on the Sandwith estate staring up at massive concrete viaduct.

It’s almost a year to the day that the bombshell was dropped, not that they heard from any official source. Instead it was a phone call from the local radio station to parish councillor Jo Mason that alerted the village to the fact that Church Fenton lies in the direct path of the high speed rail route.

The proposals fall into HS2’s second development phase, not due to be completed until 2033, but villagers say its impact is already being felt. Susi and her GP husband were hoping to use some of the equity in their house to make improvements to his surgery just a few miles down the road in Garforth. However, the proposed route of HS2 means house prices have already plummeted and the bank won’t lend them the money.

“We have lost the right to sell our homes,” says Susi. “One property which would have been valued at £385,000 before January went for £215,000. We can’t afford to take that kind of hit.”

It’s a claim backed up by local estate agent Mike Dobson. In recent months he has dealt with two properties which stand to be directly affected by the proposals. There was not even the faintest whiff of interest in either.

“People won’t buy a property which is overshadowed by the unknown,” he says. “It’s the same when you have a house which backs onto fields earmarked for development. Until a buyer knows exactly what they’re going to be dealing with they stay away.”

In the months since the announcement, the villagers in Church Fenton feel they have been stonewalled by Ministers and been deliberately misled by HS2 Ltd which ran a series of roadshows in areas likely to be affected by the line. They say the artist’s impressions designed by the company failed to show the full height of the viaduct at Church Fenton and describe the soundbooth they brought with them as an insult to their intelligence.

“Honestly, a bumble bee would have been louder,” says Jo, who has found herself as the matriarch of Church Fenton’s Anti-HS2 campaign. “I asked them to tell me the level of noise in decibels, but they said they weren’t measuring it like that. If they aren’t using the international sound measurement, what are they using?”

Currently there’s a small station at Church Fenton where platform speakers occasionally announce a late running train making its way from Leeds to York. The villages are used to that and the regular rumble of passing locomotives. However, HS2 they say will be one step too far and it seems they are not in the business of waving white flags in Church Fenton. Since the announcement the protest group has been holding fortnightly meetings to keep everyone updated on the proposals, a series of fund-raising events have paid for leaflets, posters and banners and recently they were among a delegation who went down to the Houses of Parliament.

“I think there’s so much ignorance surrounding HS2,” says Jo. “Even in this village there are still people who don’t think it will impact on their lives. I know people will accuse us of nimbyism, but it’s not that at all. Of course we don’t want a massive viaduct in our village, but even if they changed the route we would still campaign against it, because the whole project is a mess. The only people who seem to support it are those with a vested interest in it happening.

“Every other country which has introduced a high speed rail network has run up against problems. Look at Brazil. If there’s anywhere HS2 could work, it’s there because of the great distances between major cities. In fact it’s made a massive loss.

“In this country there was never a case for HS2. It was dreamed up on the back of a bus ticket, which is why they are finding it so difficult to justify it now. It was always just a Westminster toy, an idea looking for a reason to exist.”

While the Government has insisted the project is vital to the country’s economic future, HS2 hasn’t been an easy sell and doubts have begun to creep in.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling, who was in the Cabinet when the scheme was approved in principle, recently seemed to have changed his mind. Warning of a potential nightmare on England’s existing rail network, he highlighted the escalating budget – the cost of the project has risen from £32bn to £42.6bn with a further £7.5bn needed for the trains. Once the final sums are done many suspect it will be in excess of £60bn, draining resources from other lines.

Public opinion also seems to be wavering. In January last year 37 per cent of people questioned by YouGov opposed the scheme. By July that figure had grown to 46 per cent and another poll in September showed that 55 per cent were now against HS2. While Labour has insisted it won’t write a blank cheque for the scheme should the party win the next General Election, HS2 does have the broad backing of all three political parties and a report by the the House of Commons Transport Committee just last week described it as essential for the UK.

MPs have taken evidence from bosses of consultants KPMG who have claimed that by 2037 HS2 would boost the UK economy by £15bn a year. Once complete HS2 Ltd say it “will underpin the delivery of 400,000 jobs”.

“What does that actually mean? These figures seem to have been plucked out of thin air,” says Andrew Mason, husband of Jo, who is also on the parish council. “This project has been going for three years and how many jobs have been created in Yorkshire? It’s just a smokescreen. It’s created no jobs and it’s unlikely ever to do so.

“The only area they can back up up these claims is when it comes to the retail environment within the station itself. But look what’s happened with Trinity Leeds. Yes there’s a lovely new River Island, but the old premises are empty, it’s just shifting jobs from one area to another.

“If you look at what’s happened in Spain, France, Portugal and China the effect has actually been to drain talent and businesses from the other areas into the principal city, which in this case would be London. I find it embarrassing that Leeds City Council has fallen for it.

“We want jobs today not scraps from a rich man’s table tomorrow.”

Those involved in Church Fenton’s campaign also claim the process has been undemocratic. The Government has allotted the minimum 56 days for opponents to digest and respond to the 50,000 page HS2 Hybrid Bill and accompanying environmental report. The decision is being formally challenged by HS2 Action Alliance and many campaigners believe that politicians have been unable to reflect public mood as they are subject to the whip.

Conservative MP Nigel Adams, whose constituency includes Church Fenton, has made the case for changing the route and called for fair compensation for those whose homes are blighted by the scheme, but in general still supports HS2.

“We all know that if you rush legislation you end up with bad legislation. We just feel that we haven’t been given a voice,” says Jo. “We would much rather see the money ploughed into improving existing lines and the arrival of HS2 will actually make local services a whole lot worse. Two of the four lines at Church Fenton will disappear which will have a major impact on commuter and freight services. It’s not just about our village, many services to London drastically reduced and some places, like Bradford, will lose their direct route altogether.”

The campaigners could fill their own 50,000 word publication with arguments against HS2. Other chapters would include a lack of demand, lasting damage to the environment and why the money would be better invested in broadband. Mobilising a campaign has been time consuming – one of the group has given up being a governor at a local school to concentrate efforts on HS2 – and they know there is no guarantee that their voices will be heard. However, they remain determined and say one good thing has come out of the last 12 months.

“It has made us realise what a community can do when it gets together and we have made a promise that once this is all over we will look for another cause,” says Jo.

“I hope the Government will see sense, I believe they will, but it’s difficult for them to make a U-turn. However, should they go ahead I will be there to do my Swampy bit. I’ve told my kids if they think I’m embarrassing now, they haven’t seen nothing yet.”

Platform for angry opinions

There is at least one thing which is clear about HS2 – the very mention of the word divides opinion like a railway line slicing through the countryside.

On one side sits environmentalists and campaign groups like the one at Church Fenton which have drafted in numerous academics and rail experts to lend weight to their arguments. On the other is an army of MPs from all sides of the political spectrum backed by a weighty independent report compiled by KPMG.

For every claim of its vital importance to the country’s economic future, there’s a well-reasoned argument which unpicks the statistics to conclude the figures don’t add up.

Take the last few days. On Saturday it was claimed the KPMG report was flawed and exaggerated the benefits of HS2. Fast forward 24 hours and Mick Whelan, general secretary of rail union Aslef was championing the scheme, urging Labour to give HS2 its unreserved support.

Confused? You should be.