HS2 Ltd and Local Community Relations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 16 March 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Conservative, Meriden 5:02, 16 March 2023

This House has heard much about HS2 this week, so I can reassure the Minister that my intent is not to repeat what has already been said. Instead, I want to focus on HS2’s community engagement—or, I am sorry to say, its lack of meaningful engagement. I deliver this debate based on my interactions with HS2, and my reflections on dealing with it over the past three years. As the Minister will be aware, my constituency of Meriden reflects every aspect of the HS2 debate. On the one hand, it has the interchange station and the related Arden Cross development, making my constituency one of the best-connected parts of the country and the world. HS2 is forecast to create tens of thousands of jobs and thousands of homes.

On the other hand, HS2 Ltd is ripping up villages in my constituency such as Balsall Common and Hampton in Arden, blighting areas of outstanding natural beauty and damaging the green belt. Those villages are more than just their beautiful environments: they are proud, close-knit communities that care about their surroundings and about the legacy that will be left for future generations, and I am privileged to represent each and every one of my constituents who live there. It is those communities that I am standing up for today, and it is those communities that I believe HS2 Ltd wilfully ignores and, in many cases, treats with contempt. Just to be clear, I am sure that if HS2 Ltd were asked, “Have you engaged with the local community?”, it would list a lot of things that it has done. However, the community—the people who we serve—will say, “They come to you; they speak at you; they tell you they have listened and that they will act; and then they continue as they were, and communities are left bewildered and we are left to go through the cycle over and over again.”

I want to highlight three examples of the interactions that I believe exemplify how HS2 Ltd is not living up to its responsibilities, and is failing to be—in the words of its own policy—“good neighbours”. The first is the haulage route going through my village of Balsall Common, which was meant to be a temporary route to help facilitate the movement of materials. Since 2016, long before I was even elected, the residents of Balsall Common had been providing manageable, achievable alternatives that would have mitigated all the disruption and allowed the project to go forward on time. It was the first major HS2-related issue that was brought to me when I was elected, and despite numerous interactions, HS2 Ltd remained adamant that its way was the only way. Constituents complained to me that the briefings would happen and action points would be taken away, only for HS2 to return and present the same PowerPoint time after time. Nothing would change. I was also on the receiving end of this; time after time, I was given the same briefings and the same PowerPoint presentations, and nothing changed.

HS2 finally got its planning application through for the haulage route, but the Minister will be aware that that route is not yet up and running. HS2 has not been able to access the land, because the preparatory works are not yet completed. I do not just mean the physical preparatory works; I mean all the other things that need to happen, such as getting the licences and consents, and working with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council to put the resources in place to make the project go forward. As a result, the project is being delayed and the costs are rising.

What was HS2’s solution? To pursue the application for an alternative route through Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane, which are both small village lanes. Do not let the name Waste Lane fool you, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is a beautiful lane, but HS2 wants to use it to enable hundreds and hundreds of lorry movements day in, day out. Both Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane are narrow residential lanes. They are used by children to get to school, and it is causing immense anxiety for my constituents to know that there will be hundreds and hundreds of lorries going through those lanes every day if HS2 gets its way.

How did we get here? It was obvious to my constituents from 2016 that HS2’s plan was to wind down the clock until only its options remained viable. What a shame it could not just work with everybody and find alternative ways to move the project forward. The Minister will no doubt be aware that I am fighting any solution that results in hundreds of lorries going up and down Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane. Why should my constituents pay for HS2’s arrogance, complacency and incompetence?

The second example that I want to use is that of residents who have been blighted by HS2. My constituent Iain Smith in Berkswell village has a property that is surrounded by an HS2 works compound. A small portion of his property was identified for access requirements, and he was entitled to compensation. He did not want to move out, and the property was not compulsorily purchased, so there he is, a literal neighbour to one of the compounds for HS2. I have visited it, and he is completely surrounded. What does that get him? HS2 making his life miserable, in his own home.

I have lost count of the number of times I have had to fight for Iain, all because HS2 has decided to be slow and obstructive. With continued damage to his property and his gates, as well as dust, daily noise and work outside agreed hours, it is clear that HS2 has no intention of upholding its responsibilities to Iain as a good neighbour. In fact, he has to fight claim after claim regarding damage on his property, with payments that are constantly delayed.

Iain now suffers flood damage. A ruling from the Independent Construction Commissioner stipulated that the contractor was responsible for the damage, and Iain has submitted three quotations for making good the damage. That is a reasonable way to do things; many public sector bodies request three quotations. But all he has been offered is an amount that does not even cover the cost of replacing the carpet, which has been ruined, let alone all the other damage internally and externally.

When we spoke, Iain said that he is sitting in a house where one room is unusable because the carpet is saturated, it smells and it is damp, and plasterwork is falling off the walls. He never used to have damp issues; they started only two years ago, in January 2021. Now he is fearful when it rains that water will start pouring into the house and he will have to pump it out. It was recommended that HS2 should provide proper drainage, but nothing has materialised. To make matters worse, HS2 has now referred the case to the small claims court, which is not the correct process in such situations. It is as if HS2 has tried to figure out ways to make Iain’s life more difficult.

I also want to highlight the case of Stephen Fletcher. He owns Ram Hall Farm, a farm that has been in his family for six generations and more than 140 years, and it produces the famous Berkswell cheese. If the Minister is ever in Berkswell to see what HS2 is up to, I invite him to visit Ram Hall Farm and sample the cheese. I have been to the farm and sampled the cheese, and I have seen what HS2 is up to right next door. Mr Fletcher is the sole tenant of the land, but he also has a freehold farmhouse that he jointly owns with his wife—a farmhouse that has now dropped in value because it is blighted by HS2. Despite the commitment that people along the route would be “at the heart” of HS2’s property compensation schemes, that is not the reality. Fairness, as encapsulated in the overarching principles of the compensation code, requires that my constituent be compensated by HS2, but all it does is frustrate the claim at every turn, denying what he is owed and deserved. Once again, HS2 does not care about being a good neighbour.

My asks here are simple. I ask the Minister to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson, who demanded that HS2 act as good neighbours and, frankly, review the way it deals with blighted properties and blighted land. Ultimately, I want fast, common-sense resolutions for my affected constituents, including Stephen Fletcher and Iain Smith.

The third issue is that of the Balsall Common viaduct, and subsequently, I fear, the Hampton in Arden viaduct; today, HS2 has released images of the Hampton in Arden viaduct, and I have to say it is uglier than the Balsall Common viaduct. I will reassure the Minister, though, and say that that matter is for another debate on another day. I can only describe the Balsall Common viaduct as a big concrete monstrosity in the middle of our countryside. On 10 March, the Minister kindly wrote to me in response to my letter of 16 January, in which I raised my concerns about the Balsall Common viaduct. In his letter, the Minister said he was keen to ensure that the process for engaging local communities was working well. Well, I can assure him it is not.

If HS2 Ltd is asked, it will say it has engaged with constituents. The Minister wrote to me about the briefings it has done and the “You said, we did” engagement event. However, those engagements were nothing more than a tick-box exercise. I attended the “You said, we did” event; in reality, it was the “You said, and we did nothing” event. There were no alternatives put forward, and no options that allayed the concerns of my constituents, despite HS2 Ltd telling the Transport Committee that it would offer alternative options. Instead of alternatives, all we have is a proposal for a big, white, concrete elephant. In fact, representatives of HS2 Ltd told local councillors that engagement did not mean consultation. In other words, it did not have to listen; it could just explain. Does the Minister agree with that? Is HS2 correct that its engagement should be one of explaining and not consulting?

The fact is, my constituents are being very reasonable. They have already sacrificed so much. All they ask is that HS2 work with them, rather than against them, to ensure that the viaduct can fit with the local area and character and, ultimately, look beautiful. It can be done. We just have to look at another one of HS2’s viaducts, the Colne Valley viaduct, to see that viaducts can actually be aesthetically beautiful. Even the one in Birmingham, the so-called “Bellingham bridge”—named after Jude Bellingham—has more character than what my constituents are being punished with.

There were two things that stood out at the engagement event I attended. I have a copy of the slides that I am happy to share with the Minister. One of the concerns raised with me was about graffiti. It is understandable that my constituents would be concerned that a concrete block viaduct would be a red rag to vandals. What was HS2’s answer to that concern? It spoke of its zero-tolerance policy to graffiti, and referenced the graffiti policy implemented on High Speed 1. However, in 2020-21, High Speed 1 itself said that graffiti remains a “significant issue”.

To appease my constituents, HS2 Ltd decided that rather than addressing the substantive concerns, it would introduce a weaving pattern in tribute to a flax plant that apparently grows in the village of Berkswell. I have yet to find a constituent who is appeased by these squiggly lines on the concrete, but I must say this: if this had been an episode of “The Apprentice”, the person who introduced that design would have soon found themselves on the way home in the back of a taxi.

If HS2 Ltd wants to look at historical and meaningful references, I suggest that it should be looking at the deep and rich history of the inventors and architectural heavyweights who have built this nation. Where is the nod to Sir Christopher Wren, or Brunel, or even to the modern-day Sir Norman Foster? This very building—this beautiful Palace in which we stand—was designed by Augustus Pugin himself. Instead of trying to recreate their work, HS2 Ltd is trying to give the people of Balsall Common a recreation of spaghetti junction. Instead of giving them a piece of artwork that we can remember and be proud of, it gave my constituents flax.

On this issue, my ask is simple. As the Minister will know, it is not too late to fix this. I have already objected to the planning application, but HS2 can withdraw it and come up with better plans. If it loses the planning application, it will simply result in further delays. Let us fix this before it gets to that. We need to demand that HS2 Ltd comes back with better plans. It will move on from my village and my communities and they will be left with ugly concrete blocks for decades if we do not do anything. Let us challenge and push HS2 to do better. It is not too late; we can and we should demand better. When I was elected, I committed to holding HS2’s feet to the fire and I ask that the Minister stand with me so that we can find viable, sustainable and acceptable solutions.

Before I conclude, I pay tribute to the local parish councils and residents associations who have done an immense job. I feel lucky to have such a conscientious and pro-active group of parish councils in my constituency. Berkswell Parish Council, Balsall Parish Council, Hampton-in-Arden Parish Council and Hampton-in-Arden society have all played their part. I also thank the ward councillors who have been working very hard to get HS2 Ltd to listen.

I have a lot of time for the Minister—he has already engaged with me on this issue, and I know that he was an excellent Chair of the Transport Committee—but he should know that I will keep coming back on these issues, I will keep requesting debates and I will keep demanding answers. My constituents deserve to be heard.