Inside an English Village Scarred by A High-Speed Railway, HS2

For those that can afford them, the large villas at Whitmore Heath offer the tranquillity of the countryside within striking distance of urban centers like Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford, an hour’s drive north of Birmingham, the largest city in the English Midlands.

Yet on Heath Road, where some house prices have exceeded a million pounds (about $1.3 million), padlocked gates and signs warn trespassers of CCTV security monitoring. Outside one house stands a dumpster filled with waste while the roof of another is carpeted with a veneer of moss. Peer through the large windows of a family home, and not a single piece of furniture can be seen inside.

This scene of abandonment is a byproduct of a multibillion-dollar rail project that has spanned three decades and six prime ministers — a case study in the problems Britain encounters when planning large-scale infrastructure, and of the scarring that remains when such projects go awry.

“It’s like a ghost village around here now,” said Deborah Mallender, who lives in nearby Madeley, where several more modest homes also lie empty. “Where it was thriving with young families, now it isn’t.”

Whitmore was in the path of High Speed 2, a new train line that promised to connect London, Birmingham and two of the biggest cities in northern England at speeds of up to 225 miles an hour, spurring economic development and liberating space for more local services on an overburdened mainline rail network.

Houses in the area were sold to the government-financed company responsible for developing HS2 after some locals, alarmed by the impending construction, campaigned for residents to be bought out. Elsewhere, the company also used eminent domain powers.

More than 50 homes in the area have stood empty for two years or more, campaigners say — years during which HS2’s ambitions shrank markedly. The project’s fourth prime minister, Boris Johnson, lopped off one northern branch, to Leeds, in 2022. And last year its sixth, Rishi Sunak, cut the remaining northern section, to Manchester from Birmingham, including the part that would have passed near, and in places under, Whitmore.

With an election looming and his party consistently trailing in opinion polls, Mr. Sunak has depicted the cut as evidence of his willingness to make tough decisions — a risky stance given that his predecessors had presented the line as part of a promise to “level up” the north of England.

Ms. Mallender opposed the rail project because of concerns about its effect on the area. But like many locals, she is incredulous at the confusion over what comes next.

“They should have surveyors coming in to see what state it’s in,” she said, standing outside one empty property as rain began to fall. “Where’s the plan to get these houses back in habitable order?”

The high-speed line from London to Birmingham, originally promised for 2026, is going ahead, with services expected to begin between 2029 and 2033, when the initial plans said the whole network would be complete.

But as the project faced strong opposition from communities in its path and from some environmentalists, costs ballooned. By last year, some experts were putting the price of reaching all three cities at over £100 billion, or $125 billion — up from an estimated £37.5 billion, or $47 billion, in 2009.

The expected costs just of getting to Birmingham now start around £50 billion, with another £2.2 billion already spent on the canceled stages.

Some of the properties in Whitmore and nearby are now rented. But several attracted squatters in recent years, and in 2019 the police swooped on two that were being used as cannabis factories.

“One day we had helicopters in the air, we had police cars, police bikes scrambling all over the place,” said Steve Colclough, 66, who lives in Whitmore village.

Opponents of the project fume at the public money spent on the works. “Some people have got very, very rich out of HS2,” said Mr. Colclough, an operations manager for a construction company, who gambled that the line would be canceled and stayed.

“If they had started construction in and around our area, we would have sold up, but we would probably have lost £100,000 to £150,000 on the value of the property,” he said. “The whole of the locality would have been absolutely devastated with construction traffic and dust and noise, lights, 24-hour working.”

Some questions remain over whether the line to Manchester is permanently dead. While the opposition Labour party has declined to promise its revival, local leaders in Birmingham and Manchester are urgently seeking rail improvements to relieve transit congestion in the area. That’s a problem that the truncated HS2 threatens to intensify.

The government now plans to run the new trains from Birmingham into Manchester along the old mainline. And the project’s chief executive told lawmakers in January that “in the current scenario” — that is, without expensive extensions to old station platforms — the high-speed trains will actually reduce passenger capacity between the two cities.

They will also make that part of the journey slightly slower, because the trains they will replace were specially adapted to corner quickly on curved older tracks.

In the meantime, politicians are concerned about the fate of land and homes now owned by the project.

“The decision to cancel HS2’s northern leg was a watershed moment that raises urgent and unanswered questions,” said Meg Hillier, a lawmaker who led a parliamentary committee reporting on the issue, including: “What happens now to the Phase 2 land, some of which has been compulsorily purchased?”

Right now, the answer seems to be very little.

The company behind HS2 said in a statement that it had rented out “79 percent of lettable residential and agricultural properties in our managed portfolio,” adding: “Others are either being refurbished, on the market, held for construction or are not financially viable to bring up to a lettable standard.”

One of those forced to sell land was Edward Cavenagh-Mainwaring, a farmer whose family owns the local manor house, Whitmore Hall.

His forebears are thought to have moved to the area in 1098, and Mr. Cavenagh-Mainwering, 61, has spent a lifetime farming the land, where he now also runs a wild-swimming business.

A friend first warned him about the planned route in 2013. “The impact for me was like a dark cloud over my future, wondering when this corridor of destruction was going to arrive,” he said.

One section of woodland was purchased compulsorily last March, and more land went in the summer. Around a quarter of the total holding — 270 acres of farmland — left the family’s ownership in September.

Mr. Sunak canceled the project weeks later.

Technically, Mr. Cavenagh-Mainwering became a trespasser while walking in the wheat fields last May, when they abruptly became the property of HS2. The organization also purchased a 65-foot strip dividing one of his fields for power lines. He now hopes to buy the land back.

“I feel I have failed the family a bit, in that I couldn’t stop it,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got to try and work out the best outcome.”

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