Archive for October, 2013« Older Entries |
Monday, October 28th, 2013
Travel chaos is the least of our problems. An industry that once embodied national pride has been sold for other states to benefit
By the time you read this article, the UK will probably be in the grip of that recurrent national malady known as travel chaos. At the time of writing, in addition to warnings about the perils of driving, trains were being cancelled en masse, while would-be travellers were instructed to follow news from that array of corporate names which still feels like some alien imposition on national life: First TransPennine, CrossCountry, First Capital Connect, c2c. There will, it seems, be leaves on the line, and then some.
Even the most efficient set-up can probably not do much about what one firm was predicting to be “localised flooding, fallen trees and debris on the tracks”. But still: as rail travel is disrupted, thousands of people will once again seethe with fury at the operating companies’ shortcomings, whether unfairly or not. Public anger, moreover, will also reflect a firmly embedded belief: that the approach of politicians to the railways is lily-livered at best; and at worst, completely barmy.
If you want a good example of the latter, consider the fate of the east coast mainline, which runs between London, the north-east and Scotland. In 2006 GNER lost its contract to run trains along the route when its Bermuda-registered parent company filed for bankruptcy. The franchise then went to National Express, which soon defaulted on its payments. So the then-Labour government created a not-for-profit public operator called Directly Operated Railways, which has run the service for the last four years with much success.
Since 2009, DOR has paid £602m into public funds: over £200m more than National Express did, and £209m more than Virgin Rail – the franchise-holder for the west coast mainline – has managed during the same period. Its public subsidy is comparatively minimal – seven times less than that paid last year to Virgin. Its record on safety improvements is jaw-dropping: “major customer accidents” are down 81% since 2009. And customer satisfaction and punctuality are at unprecedented highs.
Now, of course, the government wants to re-privatise it – which is where things get truly absurd. Among the top bidders for the franchise is a consortium split between Eurostar and Keolis, both majority-owned by the French state firm SNCF. As well as Virgin, another probable contender will be Arriva, the British train company wholly owned by Deutsche Bahn, which is in turn wholly owned by the German government. As is increasingly the case across a whole range of national infrastructure – from power stations to water suppliers, via airports and bus companies – supposed free-marketeers are gleefully happy about state ownership of British assets, as long as it’s somebody else’s state that’s doing it. In the case of the railways, moreover, you end up with the inevitable consequence of profits being skimmed off and invested in trains and tracks overseas.
This is another of the insanities at the core of an economic model that George Osborne in particular wants to develop. Labour argues that the east coast mainline should stay in public hands and that DOR should be allowed to bid for other train franchises, following the same revenue-generating model as publicly owned firms from Germany, France and the Netherlands.
But is that really enough? The Greens’ Caroline Lucas, a rare voice of sanity, recently tabled a private member’s bill outlining a simple alternative: that over time, as rail franchises expire, they should be restored to public ownership – which would cost peanuts, repatriate a fair bit of money, and commence the abolition of all the complex and costly stupidities that privatisation produced (topical note: before the rehabilitation of John Major goes too far, let’s remember that it was his government that did it). This would at least slow those outrageous ticket price rises. And just imagine: we would also get the kind of integrated railway system to which politicians could finally apply some joined-up thinking.
This Thursday, after the publication of a new business case, there will be a Commons vote on the so-called paving bill for HS2, which will enable the government to release funding for the “preparation” of the project before later legislation grants full planning permission. The HS2 project is the grimmest embodiment yet of how awful railways policy has become, whereby tens of billions will be frittered on services for which there is no obvious demand – while existing routes will suffer, links between cities outside London will be as poor as ever, and commuter and branch lines will remain under-resourced and overcrowded.
For the moment, Labour is sticking to a depressingly familiar approach: why have a clear policy when nods, winks and mischievous opacity will suffice? With David Cameron now insisting that HS2 depends on all-party support, shadow ministers still claim to back it, though Labour MPs will be under no obligation to actually turn up and vote, and Ed Balls may yet decide to turn tail and offer to spend the money on other things. There will certainly be Conservative dissent this week, though Tory rebels are likely to come out in their largest numbers a little later. Whatever, support for HS2 is palpably weakening.
Who will eventually supply the trains and actually run HS2 remains unclear. But as well as the prospect of state-owned European firms getting involved, the China Railway Group and China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation – again, government-owned enterprises – have registered an interest in bidding for contracts. So, off we may well go again, handing yet more chunks of infrastructure to interests whose chief responsibilities lie far away from the UK, swaths of whose profits will be invested at home.
Storms permitting, I will be among the stressed-out crowds this morning, trying to get from the West Country to Stockport on a family ticket that – even with a railcard, booked several weeks in advance – cost me a wallet-threatening £125, a good deal of which will be going straight into the coffers of Deutsche Bahn, and will presumably contribute to such projects as the redevelopment of the central station in Stuttgart and the improvement of services from Mainz.
How remarkable that railways which once embodied the British genius should have become not just overpriced and lamentably run, but mere outposts of other countries’ economic empires.
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
John Major’s comment on energy prices is a fine example of a long history of ex-Tory PMs shouting directions from the backseat
In 1990, Margaret Thatcher said farewell to Tory party workers and uttered one of the most famous soundbites of her career: “I shan’t be pulling the levers, but I shall be a very good backseat driver.” Entirely reasonably, this was interpreted as a statement of intent vis-a-vis her successor, John Major. And, sure enough, as he swerved from crisis to crisis, his predecessor soon revelled in yelling at him to turn this way and that, and sowed mayhem as she did.
Two decades on, Major himself has made a fascinating intervention on energy prices: the need for the Tories to display “a heart and social conscience”, and his somewhat doubtful view of his old enemy Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits crusade – altogether milder stuff, but in some senses belated revenge for the Thatcherite mischief that once made his life a nightmare. It’s also a fine example of a long history of ex-Tory PMs relaxing in the back, passing round the barley sugars and giving it the old: “LEFT! No, RIGHT! Why are you still in third gear?” And so on …
Edward Heath, 1981
It was once said that you could gauge how much trouble Thatcher was in by how many teeth were revealed by Edward Heath’s sadistic smile in the House of Commons.
He loathed her and her politics, and in a speech he gave in Manchester a week before Tory conference in 1981, the former Conservative PM decisively tore into the monetarist conviction that unemployment could be tolerated as long as inflation came down, and much more besides. “Many of us have remained silent for a long time on these matters,” he said, “perhaps for too long… The time has come to speak out.” He sketched out what amounted to an anti-Thatcher manifesto, and called for a “return to consensus politics”.
Inevitably, she was having none of it: “What great causes have ever been fought and won under the banner of ‘I stand for consensus’?” she asked, and Heath presumably got riled all over again.
Harold Macmillan, 1984
Another broadside from the anti-Thatcherite wing of Conservatism, while it lasted. The former Tory premier who became the Earl of Stockton made his maiden speech in the House of Lords at the age of 90, in the midst of the miners’ strike. “It breaks my heart to see – and I cannot interfere – what is happening in our country today: this terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser and Hitler’s armies and never gave in,” he said. “It is pointless and we cannot afford that kind of thing.”
It was the first of a handful of such interventions, always delivered from memory, and it was met with a standing ovation. But not from Mrs T, obviously.
Margaret Thatcher, 1995
From the off, John Major’s premiership was menaced by his predecessor, but when she was hawking the second volume of her memoirs, she excelled herself. The Path To Power included an epilogue in which she held forth about how Major was doing, savaging his approach to the EU, calling the 1992 Maastricht treaty “a treaty too far”, and demanding the repatriation of European laws via “obstruction and disruption”. Given the Brussels-related ructions that were tearing the Tories apart, this was seditious enough, as part of a serialization deal, she also granted an interview with the Sunday Times, in which claimed that Britain was “moving rapidly in the wrong direction”.
When asked where all this was pointing, she mischievously said that it was “for others to take the action required” – which, as Major’s biographer Anthony Seldon later pointed out – “cast a chilling spell”.
It certainly did. All this swiftly played into the biggest crisis in Major’s troubled time as PM, when he tendered his resignation as Tory leader and did the manoeuvre known as “back me or sack me”. Four years later, he said that her behaviour had been “intolerable”, and he was being far too polite.
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
Ethical consumerism, once again, has turned out to be a crock. Perhaps we should have seen it coming
“The conversion of Co-op Bank into just another bank owned by professional investors has the potential to fundamentally alter the bank’s ethos and culture,” says the BBC’s Robert Peston – and obviously, that threatens to be a hilarious understatement. Twitter is filling up with posts that suggest the loss of a dear friend, and another win for the most venal kind of capitalism; the Unite union reckons that what has happened is “dreadful for the staff, customers and the wider banking industry”. If you are one of those people – like me – who has long thought that banking with the Co-op amounted to a small stand against the chicanery and stupidity of Finance Capital, you are likely to be feeling ever-so-slightly dazed.
The two hedge funds that have played the lead role in forcing the wider Co-op group to give up control of its banking arm are Silver Point Capital and Aurelius Capital Management. They lent money to the bank, and now their bonds are to be converted into shares – which, at a stroke, seems to imperil many of the ethical credentials that gave the Co-op Bank its unique selling point.
As it stands, for example, thanks to an ethics policy introduced in 1992, the bank is pledged not to assist “any business whose core activity contributes to global climate change, via the extraction or production of fossil fuels”. It does not take long to discover that among its many investments, Silver Point – which was founded by two alumni of Goldman Sachs – has holdings in the American petrol company Sunoco, and Sun Coke Energy, “the largest independent producer of high-quality metallurgical coke in the Americas”. As far as Aurelius is concerned – and I stand to be corrected here – fossil fuels do not seem to be a direct issue, but Co-op customers are likely to feel at least a frisson of unease about, say, this “distressed debt” specialist’s extensive dealings with those well-known practitioners of business ethics the government of Dubai.
In other words, despite assurances that the Co-op group will now be “embedding … co-operative principles in the constitution of the bank”, things already look very messy indeed. How does anybody build anything remotely co-operative into a business now majority owned by standard-issue investment companies? Moreover, some very important aspects of the bank that have seemingly combined ethics with creditable customer service are now looking fragile, to say the least. Thousands of redundancies are said to be inevitable; how long the admirably efficient and responsive call centre in Stockport – as against an outsourced version in some suitably low-wage territory – will last is anyone’s guess. By way of warning, a Guardian piece quotes Andre Spicer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, who says this: “History suggests that once a mutual bank is privatised it drops the focus on doing good to focus on doing well for shareholders. Many ex-mutuals became some of the worst offenders in the lead-up to the financial crisis.” They certainly did: Northern Rock springs to mind, along with Bradford and Bingley.
Rather than being itself a mutual, the Co-op bank was wholly owned by the mutualised Co-op group – which, as most of its account-holders seemed to believe, was good enough. It meant that the bank had strong links with the labour movement, along with decent bona fides not just on climate change, but also on the arms trade, tobacco, and more. A Guardian news piece from 2006 reports the Co-op Bank losing £10m of business thanks to its moral qualms, which included a refusal of help to a firm that made furry sporrans.
The story of the bank’s demise is simple enough: a steady-as-she-goes business model was nudged to one side by hubris. The die was cast when the Co-op Bank merged with the Britannia Building Society in 2009, and thereby took on a great deal of bad debt: in 2012, £351m of the bank’s £469m losses were traceable to assets once held by Britannia alone. By that point, the bank’s plan to take over former branches of Lloyds was starting to come to grief, and the ambitions of the Co-op’s then-CEO, Peter Marks, were already looking very ill-advised. “People have lost trust in the financial services sector. Now we can provide a big bank, a challenger bank, that people can really trust,” he said. So much for that.
Ethical consumerism, once again, has turned out to be a crock. Ben And Jerry’s gets eaten by Unilever; Innocent Drinks by Coca-Cola; The Body Shop – if it was ever truly “ethical” – gets bought out by L’Oreal. And now the bank founded as the very embodiment of proletarian self-help and a different model of business ends up being run by hedge funds. To use a slightly dodgy analogy, standing one’s moral ground in the midst of free-market capitalism might be a delusion akin to the idea of Socialism In One Country: if you believe in the usual left-liberal bundle of causes, politics is probably the best arena to pursue them, rather than fixating on what you do with your money.
And me? I’m a bruised Co-op customer, and I’m staying put, largely because switching accounts long ago proved to be a huge headache. But what the hell: I buy my electricity from SSE, my train tickets from the First Group and my petrol from Texaco. I will now stop feeling smug when I reach for my royal-blue Co-op debit card: as Paul Weller once put it, the world’s insane, and we’re all to blame in a way.
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
A third of British infrastructure now is in the hands of foreign companies, often largely state-owned. Is nationalisation OK as long as someone else is doing it?
Rejoice! Britain’s first new nuclear power station in a generation is to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset, and David Cameron could not be happier. “This is a very big day for our country,” he said yesterday, “the first time we’ve built a new nuclear power station for a very long time.”
There is only one snag: “we” are not building it at all. Thanks to an amazingly cushy 35-year deal agreed with the government, the plant to be known as Hinkley C is the responsibility of a consortium largely split between the French energy giant EDF and two Chinese setups, the China General Nuclear Power Group and the China National Nuclear Corporation. EDF is 85% owned by the French government; the Chinese state owns all of the latter two companies. Nationalisation, it seems, is back – only it’s a new kind, whereby it is overseas governments who get to buy up our national assets.
Just look at the evidence. At the last official count, a third of British infrastructure was overseas-owned – but what’s particularly interesting is the amount of government money involved. EDF – it stands for Électricité de France – already owns two British coal-fired power stations, eight UK nuclear plants and a couple of British wind farms. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn is a 100% state-owned railway company, and since 2010, it has also owned Arriva, which controls an array of British bus services as well as the majority of trains that run in Wales, and a whole load that serve Birmingham (prior to buying Arriva, DB had already bought the Chiltern main line, overground services in London and Tyne and Wear Metro).
DP World owns 60 or so ports across the planet, including the Port of London and the Port of Southampton – and is controlled by Dubai World, an investment company that acts on behalf of Dubai’s government. The state-backed China Investment Corporation owns nearly 10% of Thames Water and a similar-sized chunk of Ferrovial, the Spanish-owned conglomerate that has a big stake in the airports at Heathrow, Southampton, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Those airports are also 20% owned by Qatar Holding, which slings money around on behalf of Qatar’s rulers. Oh, and just to bring things up to date, among the big investors that bought thousands of shares in Royal Mail were sovereign wealth funds whose money comes from the governments of Kuwait and Singapore.
The Hinkley Point deal is traceable to a memorandum of understanding on infrastructure investment, agreed by the governments of China and the UK in 2011, and boosted by George Osborne’s recent trip to Beijing (where he announced that another state-owned Chinese company is to get involved in Manchester airport). There will, it seems, be much more of this stuff – not least, perhaps, when it comes to the new high-speed rail line that will run between London and Birmingham and beyond. Among the firms who are interested in a piece of that particular action are the state-owned China Railway Group, though while in China, Osborne said talks about all that were “for another day”.
Strange, perhaps, that the same Tories who warn of the perils of government intervention in the economy and our supposed loss of sovereignty to the wicked old EU should be going down this road, but there we are: state ownership is obviously fine, so long as it’s someone else’s state that’s doing it.
Saturday, October 19th, 2013
HS2, the UK’s controversial high-speed rail link, is still years away, and could cost £70bn. For those on its route, uncertainty about what will happen to their homes is taking over their lives
It’s a sodden Monday morning in Ruislip, the final bit of suburban sprawl on Greater London’s western edge, all mock Tudor villas, cul-de-sacs of 1960s maisonettes and inter-war shopping parades. Inside the Barn Hotel, a security guard stands sentry by a small function room, where a map streaked with a thick grey line is laid out on a long table. “I think this is a waste of money,” says one woman. “I don’t want to go to Birmingham anyway. And how much is all this going to cost?” A man wearing a badge that says “property team” quietly parries some of her points, but chooses not to engage with others.
This is one of many “information events”, held to consult people about the compensation arrangements for the high-speed rail link – HS2, in officialspeak – that is planned to extend from here to Birmingham, and beyond. The whole exercise has happened once already. But in March, a high court judge ruled that the initial compensation consultation had been “so unfair as to be unlawful”, and demanded a re-run – which may be why the event at the Barn Hotel is so low-key, suggesting two groups of people wearily repeating a script they have long known by heart.
Over the road at Ruislip rugby club, by contrast, the atmosphere crackles with energy. Here, the local anti-HS2 group has put on its own day-long event, and the room is full of visitors. There are maps here, too. And all the while, a film flickers away on a projector screen, gravely narrated by the comic actor Geoffrey “Butterflies” Palmer, who sounds like he is describing something very threatening indeed. “It will destroy jobs,” he says. “It will destroy homes. It will destroy businesses … “
What’s happening today, explains local anti-HS2 activist Keri Brennan, is intended as a “counter-event” to balance out the official version. A native of Croydon, she and her family moved to Ruislip four years ago, having “stretched ourselves to the limit”, and bought a four-bedroom house. Back then, the last Labour government was sketching out the initial plans for a new high-speed line, and Brennan soon found out that the tracks were planned to run through her back garden. “I felt like I was going mad, because I was so stressed about it, and no one else seemed to know,” she tells me.
For her, there has been some good news: confirmation that by way of “mitigation”, the line through Ruislip will be put in a tunnel. Her house, though, is effectively unsellable – which, in an area usually associated with snap sales and rising prices, speaks volumes. As with so many of the people whose homes line the route, for her, it looks like the promises of the property-owning democracy have come to nothing, and the modern nightmare of negative equity has arrived in spades.
Ten minutes drive away is the Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre, a 90-acre facility run as an educational charity since 1969 and built around a lake, where 20,000 young Londoners come every year to sail, canoe, windsurf, camp, and get acquainted with nature, and with peace and quiet. The HS2 line will cut directly across it, snaking over the site – including the lake – on a huge viaduct.
Jeff Creek, 62, has been the principal for 30 years: when construction work starts, his full-time staff will be made redundant and, as far as he understands it, their work will stop. The HS2 officials he has met, he says, seem to think that once the line has been built, the centre will be able to re-open, but he is having none of it: the fact that one train every four minutes will pass directly over the campsite, he tells me, is a pretty good indication of why it won’t work. “This is a rural environment: as good as it gets in west London,” he says. “Kids come here because it’s the countryside. This thing will just make it into more suburban sprawl.”
The centre’s entrance sits next to an 18th-century farmhouse, where 66-year-old Ron Ryall lives with his wife and 86-year-old aunt, as well as his son and daughter. He owns a car repair business 50 or so yards away, and both are marked for compulsory purchase; what will happen to the nearby house where his elderly mother lives is unclear, as is the likely outcome of negotiations with HS2 Ltd about a price for everything they require. “I’m going to lose my business and my home,” he says. “What’s a fair price for a lifetime’s work? They’ve just left us up in the air.” His voice then gets louder. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” he says, grimly. “Until HS2 want it.”
Throughout his adult life, he tells me, he has always voted Conservative. “But now,” he says, “I’m going to vote for the people who don’t want it.” And who’s that? “Ukip.” Over the next two days, this is a refrain I hear a lot.
Phase one of HS2, intended to be up and running by 2026, will go from London to Birmingham via a remarkably straight route that runs through Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. Phase two, which is set to open in 2033, will be split into two lines, running from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester respectively, and cutting through swathes of the Midlands and the north. Needless to say, both projects are surrounded by great clouds of controversy about the years of construction they will entail, the compensation arrangements, and the damage that will be done to the environment – not just from the laying of tracks, but also from such factors as the excavated “spoil”, much of which will be used to somehow reshape local landscapes.
Whether HS2 will happen at all is still not 100% certain: for phase one, the required legislation is unlikely to be passed before the next election, and the phase two timetable extends well beyond that. This week, anti-HS2 groups and an arry of councils began a challenge to the plans in the supreme court. There is serious dissent about the plan inside the Conservative party – and as far as Labour is concerned, scepticism among senior figures seems to be growing fast: a final decision about which way the party will jump is now expected in the spring. Both inside and beyond Westminster, there are mounting doubts about the business case, and bafflement at HS2’s cost: at the last count, up from £34.2bn to £42.6bn, plus £7.5bn for rolling stock, though plenty of people – among them, Boris Johnson – think the total figure will climb way above that, to £70bn and beyond.
As the projected route winds through towns, villages and expanses of countryside, you get a sharp sense of a backwoods rebellion: fields smattered with the red-and-black Stop HS2 logos, and the odd slogan – “It’s all about the money David, stupid”. In sedate–looking villages, there are noticeboards featuring “campaign updates”; in pubs and cafes, it feels like the subject is never far away from conversation.
Two hours or so after leaving Ruislip, I drive along the A413 into the Chilterns. In Wendover – where the HS2 line will pass through the landscape on a 500m viaduct, making the nearby Chiltern main line look like a model railway – I arrive at the Shoulder of Mutton pub to meet a deputation of six anti-HS2 activists, five of whom voted Conservative at the election, but now say they will think seriously about other options. Among them is 73-year-old Marion Clayton, who used to be a Conservative county councillor. “A lot of people feel the way I do,” she says. “They want to support individual MPs, because they are trying to get HS2 stopped, or get better mitigation, or whatever. But I would not want to vote for David Cameron’s government.” In Buckinghamshire, she reminds me, Ukip recently won six county council seats from the Tories – and HS2 sat at the heart of what happened.
Sixty miles further up the route, I spend the evening in the village of Offchurch, three miles to the east of Leamington Spa, in the company of five anti-HS2 campaigners who, as with everyone else I meet along the route, are in daily touch with campaigners in exactly the same position. They are also au fait with the issue’s international dimension: the day after we meet, 66-year-old Madeleine Wahlberg is going to Tallinn in Estonia to attend a meeting of EU transport officials, and harden up contacts with anti-high speed rail campaigners across Europe.
Among the people I meet here is a local arable farmer called Andrew McGregor, who has been served notice that he will have to give up a 26-acre field, which earns him around £17,500 annually, so trees can be planted to make up for lost woodland elsewhere. Visibly seething, he says that the government seems to have no idea about the economics of agriculture, and hands me an 8×6 photo of the field in question. On the back, in slanted block capitals, is written: “3 FARMS ARE SEVERED IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH ALONE. HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF FERTILE LAND IS TO BE SACRIFICED, NOT JUST FOR THE LINE BUT FOR VERY DUBIOUS ‘ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION’.”
As well as being the chancellor of the exchequer and among HS2’s most vocal champions, George Osborne is also the MP for Tatton, the Cheshire constituency that includes Wilmslow, Knutsford, Northwich and a sizeable expanse of countryside. Earlier this year, he was the focus of loud controversy when the Tory leader of Cheshire East council issued a statement praising Osborne and his fellow Tory minister Edward Timpson for having “fought hard to keep the line away from Knutsford and Tatton, which we have been successful in achieving“. The statement was hastily retracted and the council said it had “made a mistake”.
The proposed line does indeed avoid most of Osborne’s constituency, though it intrudes on its northern edge, not least when it comes to the village of Pickmere. Here, I meet a tireless anti-HS2 campaigner called Ewen Simpson, another resident of an apparently unsellable local house named Helen Shaul, and John Keleher and Pat Mather, who breed ponies at their stud farm. We sit drinking tea in its office, full of equestrian paraphernalia, and talk about the story that now defines their lives. The farm was bought by Mather’s family 60 years ago: now, HS2 will take away 19 of their 23 acres, and 60% of land that they rent close by, along with their farmhouse and outbuildings.
They began to sense what was afoot on 28 January 2013, when the proposals for Phase 2 were first announced. “We sat watching George Osborne on breakfast TV on that morning,” says Keleher. “And I turned to John and said, ‘We’ve just been told to tighten our belts. Where’s all this money coming from?’” adds Mather.
“About half an hour later, we got a phone call from a friend,” says Keleher. “She said, ‘Have you seen the HS2 maps? You’d better have a look.’ We then went on the internet and … Oh my God. I was just numb. You just couldn’t take it in. Someone was just drawing a line and saying, ‘You’re out.’”When they initially sent emails and letters to Osborne, they tell me, they didn’t get a reply. Of late, they have been more successful, though the correspondence is always based on what Keleher calls a “set spiel”: as he summarises it: “It’s a good idea, we’re going to do it, put up with it.”
I ask what it is like living in the midst of such an uncertain but potentially life-changing set of circumstances. “Oh, you live HS2,” he says. “Every morning I get up, put the computer on, check the emails, and see what’s relevant to HS2. I get a list of 30 or 40 links every day. You’re just desperate to find something that’s going to give you hope.” They have yet to seriously consider a life that does not involve the farm. “Our aim is to stop HS2,” says Keleher, “and if we can’t, then we’ll have to think.” Having always voted Conservative, he says that Labour’s increasing doubts about HS2 suggest that they may be more deserving of his vote, something that clearly feels very strange indeed.
Two hours later, after I have driven from the route of the Manchester extension to the proposed line that will serve Leeds, my journey comes to a close in the Yorkshire village of Church Fenton, near Tadcaster: the end of the planned HS2 line, and also its most northerly point. Its place in the HS2 story is both fascinating, and rather bizarre: the village sits on a “spur” that will go beyond Leeds – according to the official blurb, intended to “enable HS2 trains to run on to the East Coast Main Line to serve York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle” (though they would have to drastically slow down). Church Fenton is already bordered on one side by a railway that serves Leeds and York – and the arrival of HS2 would mean it would be completely enclosed, sitting in the middle of a triangle formed by railway tracks.
HS2 will pass over local fields on a viaduct, and skirt a new-ish housing development called Sandwath Drive, built around a snooker-table green and a childrens’ play area. Here, what HS2 means for house prices is a highly charged issue, to say the least.
Most of the proposals for HS2 compensation are out for consultation and therefore unconfirmed, but in rural areas, the current plan goes something like this: 60 metres or less from the centre of the line is the so-called safeguarding zone, in which the most likely outcome is compulsory purchase. Between 60 and 120 metres away, it’s proposed that houses will be in a voluntary purchase zone, so HS2 Ltd will buy any property at a supposed market price, plus an extra amount to cover costs. The houses on Sandwath Drive, however, sit just beyond that boundary, meaning that residents can only apply for an “exceptional hardship” scheme which, as far as phase one is concerned, has benefited only around a quarter of the people who applied.
Angus Donald, 49, has lived with his family on Sandwath Drive for seven years. A house close to his, he tells me, was originally bought for £415,000, and recently sold for £265,000. “We feel like we’ve been robbed of everything we’ve ever worked for,” he says.
“We’ve been mugged by our own government,” says Jo Mason, a parish councillor and co-founder of the local anti-HS2 Action Group.
In Mason’s nearby home, we sit having afternoon tea. There are Stop HS2 Fairy cakes iced in the regulation red and blue, and not for the first time, I end up intently studying reams of maps.
One question springs to mind. What do they make of accusations that they are just nimbys? “This is destroying our village,” says Mason. “But even if this bit gets cancelled tomorrow, I’ll carry on fighting against HS2. Because it’s bad for the country, it’s bad for the environment, and it’s bad for the economy.”
She glances out of her window. “And it’s ruining people’s lives.”
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