WWhen Phill Dann heard that Rishi Sunak was considering scrapping HS2 north of Birmingham, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Ten years ago he was living happily in what should have been his forever home in the Staffordshire countryside.
The house – one of around 50 properties in the hillside hamlet of Whitmore Heath – had everything the accountant had ever wanted: four bedrooms, a landscaped garden and a private bar with brass taps.
Then one day in 2013 he returned from a ski weekend and discovered that the planned high-speed rail link from London to Manchester was to pass under the house. A vast tunnel had to be dug through the hill. In a letter, HS2 Ltd apologized for the inconvenience caused.
Mr Dann – like more than half of the hamlet’s residents – saw no choice but to sell his beloved home, where he had lived since 2001.
“And why?” he asks today. “For absolutely nothing. We had our whole lives under our feet and a decade of mental agony trying to get through it. And then? Either way, the government decides what we knew all along: this is all a bad idea and a vanity project for politicians.”
The saga of Whitmore Heath is perhaps one of the most shameful chapters in HS2’s increasingly long history.
In other parts of the country, property owners within 120 meters of the planned line have been given the right to sell their properties to the government or receive other compensation through so-called “blight” programs. Almost 1,000 properties – ranging from mansions to terraced houses and some businesses – have been sold in this way, including 530 on the stretch to Leeds which was removed in 2021, racking up a bill of almost £164m sterling for the government.
A further 239 properties were sold between the West Midlands and Crewe, plus a further 185 between Crewe and Greater Manchester – at a total cost of £396m.
This is the part of the route which is today threatened after The independent revealed that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, were in talks to remove the leg amid mounting costs and delays.
But Mr Dann and other residents of Whitmore Heath – a rural area south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme – were told that because the work would be carried out under their homes they were not entitled to anything . Indeed, they should simply accept that the UK’s biggest ever infrastructure project is being dug beneath their foundations.
“They destroyed our homes and showed no compassion,” the 59-year-old says today.
For four years, he and other residents advocated for their cause. Mr Dann sold his business so he could concentrate on the battle full time. Eventually HS2 agreed to buy out people’s shares. He was finally able to leave at the end of 2017.
“It was four years of mental torture, where you couldn’t plan your future because you were in a total void,” he says today. “It ruined my mental health. This has ruined the mental health of so many people here. I had a neighbor in his seventies who died a few months after the sale. His family says stress killed him, and I believe them. There was a complete lack of humanity in the way we were treated.
And now how does Mr. Dann feel knowing that there’s a good chance the line won’t be built?
“I can’t think about it,” he said. “I refuse to go back to where I was mentally during those years. It would only cause me distress.
He hasn’t been back to Whitmore Heath for several years now: “The trauma would be too great,” he says.
But it’s a different place today.
Thirty-five of around 50 homeowners sold their homes when HS2 finally agreed to buy. Today, a few would be rented, but others are visibly empty, with padlocks on their doors. At least one was taken over by squatters. Remaining residents say others have been turned into cannabis factories.
“Beautiful homes – some worth more than £1 million – are being left to fall into disrepair and ruin,” says Steve Colclough. “What happened here is a national scandal from start to finish.”
He himself lives half a mile away, down the hill, in the neighboring village of Whitmore.
Its 19th century cottage looks directly onto the fields that HS2 will (or would have) thundered through. Because the line here had to pass on immense concrete piles, the viaduct would have become their permanent skyline. Since the property is outside this 120m limit, they had no option to sell.
As such, the two men spent nearly a decade fighting these plans.
“It was a hell of a few years,” the 66-year-old director of a construction company says today. “You try to get on with your life, but it worries you every day. »
The couple – who bought the place in 1998 – felt trapped.
On the one hand, they didn’t want to have a house in the shadow of a vast railway line – and years of construction work had preceded it. On the other hand, they couldn’t sell because no one wanted to buy.
“You work hard all your life and try to do the right thing,” the 66-year-old says. “And then something like this happens and it destroys everything. They are stealing my retirement years.
News that the line might be canceled offered some hope but not much joy. He will only celebrate it when – or if – it is officially announced. But even then, the relief will be tainted by years of stress.
“This is a fight we should never have fought in the first place,” he said.
Another activist, Deborah Mallender, from the neighboring village of Madeley, agrees.
The retired academic researcher says even if ministers confirm the line’s cancellation, there will have to be accountability.
“It has ruined lives,” said the 63-year-old. “They can’t just walk away. We need answers as to why people were subjected to this.
Newcastle-under-Lyme Conservative councilor Paul Northcott said the impact on people in the area was “life-changing”.
Some are “waiting eagerly for the right offer,” while others are still waiting to be compensated.
For those who are reluctant to sell, the government can force them to sell using compulsory purchase orders.
“They’re just sitting in a property they can’t sell on the market, waiting for the whims of HS2 to sort it out. The area is devastated,” he said.
“People will be delighted that this can be abandoned. Many of them will be unhappy at having had to modify – quite significantly – their life plans. But there will be a huge sigh of relief because of the impact the work would have had on the area. »
Joe Rukin, treasurer of campaign group Stop HS2, claimed the government had been “exceptionally inconsistent” in choosing which properties it would and would not buy, with a “very lengthy process” leaving families in uncertainty.
“You find yourself in a situation exactly as you would expect: a huge faceless gray corporation versus an owner,” Mr. Rukin said. “Selling your house is stressful at the best of times, but it’s really stressful when it’s the government you’re trying to sell it to, and they’ve been beating people up for the better part of a decade.”
A government spokesperson said: “One would expect No 10 and the Treasury to regularly discuss major infrastructure projects. Things are already in place on the HS2 program, and we remain focused on achieving this goal.
Additional reporting by Andy Gregory