Inside an English village marked by a high-speed railway, HS2

For those who can afford them, the large villas of Whitmore Heath offer countryside tranquility within easy reach of urban centers such as 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 topped £1 million (about $1.3 million), padlocked gates and signs warn intruders of CCTV security monitoring. Outside one house there is a dumpster full of rubbish while the roof of another is covered in a film of moss. Peering through the large windows of a family home, not a single piece of furniture can be seen inside.

This scene of abandonment is an aftermath of a multibillion-pound rail project that has lasted three decades and six prime ministers: a case study in the problems Britain faces when planning large-scale infrastructure, and the scars that remain when such projects go wrong.

“It's like a ghost village around here now,” said Deborah Mallender, who lives in nearby Madeley, where many more modest homes also sit empty. “Where it used to be thriving with young families, it's not now.”

Whitmore was on the path to High Speed ​​2, a new rail line that promised to connect London, Birmingham and two of northern England's largest cities at speeds of up to 225 miles per hour, spurring economic development and freeing up space for more local services. on an overloaded mainline rail network.

Homes in the area were sold to the government-funded company responsible for developing HS2 after some locals, alarmed by the impending construction, campaigned for residents to buy them out. Elsewhere, the company has also used eminent domain powers.

More than 50 homes in the area have remained empty for two years or more, campaigners say, years during which HS2's ambitions have been significantly reduced. The project's fourth prime minister, Boris Johnson, cut off a northern branch, towards Leeds, in 2022. And last year his sixth, Rishi Sunak, cut off the remaining northern section, towards Manchester from Birmingham, including the part that she would pass by, and in the seats below, Whitmore.

With an election looming and his party consistently trailing in opinion polls, Sunak described 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 due to concerns about its effects on the area. But like many locals, she is incredulous at the confusion about what comes next.

“They should get some surveyors to come and see what state it is in,” he said, standing outside a vacant property as it began to rain. “Where is the plan to bring these houses back into habitable order?”

The London to Birmingham high-speed line, originally promised for 2026, is moving ahead, with services expected to begin between 2029 and 2033, when initial plans called for the entire network to be completed.

But as the project has faced strong opposition from communities along its route and from some environmentalists, costs have ballooned. Last year, some experts estimated the price of reaching all three cities at more than 100 billion pounds, or $125 billion, compared with an estimate of 37.5 billion pounds, or $47 billion, in 2009.

The expected costs just to get to Birmingham now stand at around £50 billion, with another £2.2 billion already spent on canceled stages.

Some of the properties in Whitmore and nearby are now rented. But in recent years many have attracted squatters and in 2019 police intervened in two that were being used as cannabis factories.

“One day we had helicopters flying over, police cars and police motorcycles racing everywhere,” said Steve Colclough, 66, who lives in the village of Whitmore.

Opponents of the project are angry about the public money spent on the work. “Some people have become very, very rich off HS2,” said Mr Colclough, the operations director of a construction company, who bet the line would be canceled and stay.

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

Some questions remain about whether the line to Manchester is permanently cut. While the opposition Labor Party has refused to promise its revival, local leaders in Birmingham and Manchester are urgently seeking rail improvements to ease transport congestion in the area. This is a problem that the truncated HS2 threatens to intensify.

The government now plans to run new trains from Birmingham to Manchester along the old main line. And the project's chief executive told lawmakers in January that “in the current scenario” — that is, without costly expansions of the station's old platforms — 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 replace have been specially adapted to curve quickly on old curved tracks.

Meanwhile, politicians are worried about the fate of the land and houses now owned by the project.

“The decision to cancel the northern leg of HS2 was a watershed moment that raises urgent and unanswered questions,” said Meg Hillier, an MP who led a parliamentary committee that reported on the issue, including: “What Happens now to Phase 2 territory, some of which was compulsorily purchased?”

At this time, the answer appears to be very small.

The company behind HS2 said in a statement that it had let “79% of the lettable residential and agricultural properties in our managed portfolio”, adding: “Others are under renovation, on the market, held for construction or are not financially viable to bring to an acceptable standard.”

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

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

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

Part of the forest was compulsorily purchased last March, and other land was sold in the summer. About a quarter of the total property – 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 through the cornfields last May, when they suddenly became the property of HS2. The organization also purchased a 65-foot strip dividing one of its fields for power lines. He now hopes to buy back the land.

“I feel like I let the family down a little bit in the sense that I couldn't stop it,” she said. “That's why you have to try to get the best outcome.”

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