Mrs Victoria Roberts, Senior Community Engagement Manager for the HS2 Project, gave an update presentation on the Phase 2a constructions works involved in delivering the railway between the West Midlands and Crewe. The project, which formed part of the Government transport capital investment programme, was to be paused for two years while activity was being rephased. Some preparatory works were nonetheless to be carried out.
Three questions had been received from members of the Public and were passed on by the Chair before being discussed.
“I Reside on Whitmore Heath which before HS2 was a very sought after area to live, I always enjoyed walking around the Heath until now with padlocked chained up gates, empty eerie houses and hs2 security doing laps around the Heath. I’m disgusted by how many of these houses are sat empty, many for over 6 years, which has resulted in three properties costing over £3 million being turned into Cannabis Plantations. Another property worth £1.4 million has been taken over by squatters which would never have happened if these properties had been let out, instead of renting it out, HS2 have now set up a welfare unit for their security on a neighbouring empty property which cost hs2/the taxpayer £1.3 million last year. Just on my walk alone I pass properties worth over £11 million which are all currently sat empty with some being empty since the day they were purchased by hs2 many years ago. The security alone on our road is needlessly costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands if these properties had been rented out, I’m fully aware this is a recurring story all the way along the trace wasting millions of tax payers money. My question is why aren’t these properties being rented out, is there anyone even accountable for renting out these properties?”
It was confirmed that HS2 acquired 35 properties around Whitmore Heath, 16 of which were rented out and 19 currently unoccupied. Among the latter 3 were on the market, 5 were undergoing works and remaining properties were subject to governance approval processes and surveys to ensure they were meeting rental standards. Regarding security, regular patrols were operating and would stay in place regardless of properties being rented out or not. This applied to other areas as well across the whole of the HS2 route. Illegal occupiers had also been evicted and the related property secured.
The Chair asked questions and responses were provided as follows:
- How many properties were currently unoccupied under the consideration that the cost of bringing them up to standards would be exceeding taxpayers’ money? – Three of the properties were concerned.
- Given the rentable value of these properties, and the fact they had been unoccupied for so many years, who was accountable for scrutinising whether taxpayers’ money was indeed not being wasted? – A property management company was managing the properties on behalf of HS2 and required to supply reports demonstrating good governance. HS2 was in turn reporting to the Department of Transports which had to give approval for any public money spent by HS2.
- Was the information about those processes and how taxpayers’ money was spent in relation to these properties publically available? – Mrs Roberts would investigate and report back to the Committee.
Cllr Moffat asked two further questions: how did HS2 allow the properties to end up in such a state and how would HS2 ensure that other areas would not be devastated the same way? – The properties had been maintained to the state they were at on the date of purchase and so would future properties acquired. Cllr Moffat rephrased her questions as referring to the decline, deterioration and illegal possession of the properties. – It was confirmed that the properties were maintained is the conditions they were purchased at and clarified that the security issues encountered originated from tenants in situ. Mrs Roberts would look into the challenges raised by Cllr Moffat and report back to the Committee.
“What structure do HS2 have to ensure all people and businesses are not disadvantaged in any way by the HS2 project?”
As part of the project HS2 aimed to minimise and mitigate the disruption resulting from the works. Clear guidelines to adhere to had been set out however it was to be recognised that there would still be disruption during the construction. Minimum requirements set out by the Government included taking into account and minimizing the effects on both the environment and people. The Code of Construction practice would also apply for matters such as noise and vibrations and there would be a compensation scheme for land owners as well as a discretionary property scheme for those impacted by the works based on the level of disruption. Finally the community engagement team was there to listen and look at ways to further minimise any impacts.
The Chair asked a follow up question: what was HS2 going to do to speed up and resolve the compensation payment processes? – The challenges being mainly about the collection of information and evidence, it was about making sure to communicate what was needed. There were two channels of compensation: the Compulsory Purchase Compensation and the Business Claim that allowed farmers to claim retrospectively on any business losses relating to HS2 works.
“In June 2018 at HS2a Select Committee Justine Thornton KC promised on behalf of HS2 to alleviate the stressful and detrimental impact of HS2, making particular reference to Whitmore Heath. Also in June 2018, the same Select Committee asked HS2 to report on Mental Health and Wellbeing. In December 2022 HS2 produced a progress report (tabled this evening) and they are not living up to any of their promises made in it, in fact, they have made the situation worse. 16 residents of Whitmore Heath have died since HS2 started, all living under the stress and as Justine Thornton said (statement tabled this evening), the detrimental impact of HS2. Many people are vulnerable and yet none of the commitments within the progress report have been put in place, in fact, the situation has worsened. The residents have had to contend with empty properties, properties having been turned into cannabis farms and the security thereafter was so none existent that a large property now has people squatting in it. Security guards are now patrolling the area but this only adds to the detrimental impact of this once peaceful and desirable area. Anyone wishing to sell to HS2 in this area should be allowed to do so. At present only those who, according to HS2's Need to Sell rules, can do so, but even they have to jump through hoops. People are told they can apply through Atypical but are still refused adding to the stress this places upon them. People have been living with this situation since 2013, 10 years already and they are now being told 2a will be completed between 2038 and 2041, another 18 years. The question is: When is HS2 going to live up to its promises to Parliament? Look after the welfare of people, because this won't just be happening in this area, do regular face-to-face welfare checks and assist those who want to sell up and move, for any reason, to do so with as little fuss as possible.”
Mrs Roberts responded that there was a designated engagement officer for the community, a role she was currently filling until a new person was hired. Residents could contact her directly to raise any issues and have insight on what would be the right support for them. Newsletters and leaflets were also being distributed to inform the community of upcoming works in their area and there were drop-in sessions in places for people wishing to have face-to-face discussions. Residents could furthermore use the help of an independent advocate to go through the various processes via a charity called Power which HS2 was working with.
A wellbeing survey was currently underway in partnership with the National Institute of Health and Care looking at the welfare impacts of large construction projects. Finally a support scheme was available to help people go through the process when needing to sell their property.
Cllr Fox-Hewitt asked if the health support referred to included paid access to therapy and treatments. – The support provided depended on personal circumstances and the support team was there to assess what was the best this could be done. Mrs Roberts would look into the options that were offered and report back to the Committee.
The Chair asked who had been so far engaging into face-to-face discussions. – The previous Engagement Manager had been doing it and Mrs Roberts had taken over. Other team members would also be involved and experts would be brought in as required.
The Chair commented that this wasn’t enough to give the community what they needed and wished to know how to escalate this to HS2 as a scrutiny committee. Mrs Roberts responded that as contractors would come on board they would be taking on some of this engagement activity, along with the design delivery partner who would be coming towards the end of the year.
The Chair wished that an official request for more support to be available for the community be escalated. There were no objections.
Cllr Fox-Hewitt asked how the community funding grant was administrated and defined. – The level of disruption was evaluated looking at the environmental statement that outlined where the works had an actual impact and how to minimize it.
Cllr Fox-Hewitt also wished to know the origin of the steel used to build the railway. – 98% was UK sourced. Mrs Roberts would look into the exact location and get back to the Committee.
Resolved: That the update be noted along with the request for the HS2 Senior Community Engagement Manager to come back and respond to questions raised at the meeting.