HS2 has spent hundreds of millions buying properties on its intended route - but not everyone wants to sell. Chris Burn speaks to some of the Yorkshire families holding out in their homes as the future of the high-speed rail project grows increasingly uncertain.
“It has been really, really worrying not knowing what might happen,” reflects Louise Nicholson on the experience of being among the hundreds of people whose homes face demolition to make way for HS2. “It has just been unnerving. What has been worst is the realisation that nobody actually owns anything, you can just have it taken away from you with no choice whatsoever.”
Louise and her husband Howard had spent thousands of pounds on a painstaking renovation of the Grade II-listed Nickerwood Farm near Aston, living in a caravan for years as they restored the 16th Century property in the South Yorkshire countryside.
But three years ago they were informed the property - which they had to take down piece by piece and number stones so they all went back in the same place to comply with stringent building regulations - now sat directly on the revised route for HS2 and would have to be pulled down.
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 in the Rotherham and Doncaster areas - without the benefit of a dedicated HS2 station for South Yorkshire.
The family’s unhappiness with the situation led to a face-to-face meeting with then-Transport Secretary Chris Grayling last year after their nine-year-old daughter Lily appeared on LBC Radio reading a letter she had sent him pleading for their house not to be destroyed.
Louise says Grayling made it clear at the meeting that he wouldn’t be agreeing to the request.
“We got an invite to see him and he told us it would definitely be going ahead and we had about five years until we had to move. He told us basically there was nothing we could do about it.”
But since that point last year, the situation with HS2 has changed considerably. It was revealed last week that the anticipated cost of the high-speed rail project has increased from £62bn to between £81bn and £88bn, while the Yorkshire element of the route may now not be ready to open until 2040 - seven years later than previously planned.
That news came after Grayling’s replacement as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that Boris Johnson’s new Government was conducting a review of the HS2 scheme to make a “go or no-go” decision on the project by the end of the year. Backers of the scheme say it will bring major economic benefits to Yorkshire and play a vital role in increasing capacity on the North’s rail network and pave the way for further high-speed connections between northern cities through Northern Powerhouse - or HS3 - Rail.
But for those like the Nicholson family in South Yorkshire, the alleged benefits are less clear than ever. Louise says she was “gobsmacked” to hear last week of the spiralling projected costs for the project.
“I can’t believe the country would spend that kind of money on something that is outdated now and will be much more outdated by the time it is completed,” she says.
“I have always questioned whether it would go ahead. I couldn’t get an answer from Chris Grayling about what it actually does, it doesn’t help anyone in South Yorkshire.
“We have friends who have sold to HS2 and they have said the whole process was a nightmare.
“They told us it is now all about capacity more than speed. I’m not convinced it will ever go ahead.
“I don’t think it will ever happen, I think it might get to Birmingham but not to Yorkshire.”
But she says for now the latest delay to the scheme means the family intend to stay put in their much-loved home for the foreseeable future.
“We are going to do what we have always done - keep up with the news about it but not put our lives on hold and carry on.”
That sentiment is shared by Becky Quartermaine, who lives with her family on The Shimmer Estate in Mexborough which has become emblematic of the controversy around HS2. The housing estate was 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.
It has been left unfinished since it was announced it was going to be on the HS2 route in 2016, with many residents opting to sell their properties to HS2 and renters moving in. Earlier this year, it was revealed that HS2 has spent almost £600m buying over 900 properties around the country on the intended route.
Becky is among those that have stayed at Shimmer, partly in the hope HS2 will never arrive, and her back garden is overlooked by the shells of half-finished houses.
She says news of the construction delays and spiralling costs are “nothing that we didn’t already know” but adds that she hopes the ongoing review will provide people like her with a definitive answer on whether HS2 will go ahead.
“I am clinging on with my fingertips,” she says. “I am not going until it definitely happens. Come December we need a decision of ‘yes, it is going to happen’ or ‘no, its not’. They can’t just make changes, it causes more uncertainty.
“But even if it doesn’t happen, the damage has been done. I have lost neighbours, we have had three years of stress. I love my house, I love where we live and I just want to get on with my life.”
Another family to be affected are the Sampsons, who run the Parklands Equestrian Centre in Aston, South Yorkshire, which is directly on the planned route. Richard Sampson, whose parents Robert and Ruth started the riding school, says the business has been put in limbo by the uncertainty.
“It has just put us on hold. We had got planning for a new shop we wanted to build which would have been a £500,000 investment. Once we got wind of this, there was no way we were going to do it.
“There was property across from us that had planning permission to build four houses and that stopped.
“A lot of our staff have worked for my mum and dad for 25, 26 years. We are trying not to pass the worries on but it can’t be nice. We had a senior member of staff who had worked for us for 20 years who took a new job because of the uncertainty with HS2.”
Sampson says dealing with HS2 officials has been a cause of considerable frustration, with a lack of understanding of how the business will be affected.
“We have got 70 horses on site - where are they going to go? They just say ‘move them’ but a lot of these horses will not be good in another environment.
“It just prevents everything happening. The day-to-day running hasn’t changed but it is the plans for the future.
“The people they send out to engage with those of us who are affected need to have answers rather than them saying ‘I can see how you feel’. They are sending them out to appease people but they just end up winding them up.
“We are not hypocrites, we know things need to progress but if they dealt with people in a better manner it would possibly get a bit more support.”
He says his family have recently told HS2 they will not accept further visits to their land for site surveys after delays in receiving payments for the visits, which have now been resolved.
“They paid up but haven’t been back since,” he says.
Sampson’s own home is next to the business and he says that situation has also been the cause of considerable stress and anxiety as he contemplates whether to sell it after two neighbours opted to move.
He says that he received what he felt was a “pretty threatening letter” from HS2 about the need to make a decision on his house sale after amendments to the route in June 2019 meant it is no longer directly on the railway line’s path but he is still eligible to sell under the previous terms.
“They basically said we could take you out of the compensation zone and sent it with a map with a drawing around my property. I brought it up with HS2 and they basically just said ‘you need to make your mind up’.”
An HS2 spokesman says the letter was not intended to be viewed as threatening.
“We appreciate that it can be difficult to decide whether or not to sell a property, which is why, for homes like Mr Sampson’s - which are no longer needed for construction - we offer a five-year window during which owner occupiers can sell to the government. This is in recognition of the fact that people may have been halfway through a sale when the changes were made.
“We do not agree that this offer is in any way threatening.”
But Sampson says he was not clear from the letter that there would be five years to decide and he did consider it an attempt to put pressure on him.
He adds that those affected and in various negotiations with HS2 were outraged by the recent revelation that the company had paid the high-profile comedian and past HS2 critic John Bishop £6.8m for his Cheshire mansion - £4.5m more than he purchased it for in 2011.
“They paid him millions more than he paid for it - for anybody else it is a hard negotiation. All my neighbours had to fight to get the value of their house. Then getting the money from them is another story. My next door neighbour had a nine-month process of buying another property.”
For now, it is business as usual - as much as possible - for the riding school.
“We are as busy as ever,” Sampson reflects. “It just makes you realise if it does happen, there is a lot to lose.”
HS2 defends approach to compensation
HS2 says it is trying to ensure a “fair deal” for both homeowners and taxpayers when agreeing house price purchases.
A spokesperson said: “We recognise that businesses and residents want certainty about how the arrival of HS2 in Yorkshire will affect them.
“Construction is not expected to begin in until the mid-2020s and a range of compensation schemes are in place to provide fair and reasonable compensation should homeowners wish to sell now.
“Every home, business and piece of land is unique and we appreciate that there may often be different opinions about the value of a property.
“In all cases we are seeking a fair deal for both claimants and the taxpayer.”