Our home is on the (rail) line

Outside the council offices in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, the protesters were crushed in behind sturdy metal barricades. Some had dyed hair, others wore garish protest T-shirts in red and black — but the hairdo was as likely as not to be a blue rinse, and the T-shirt worn with the tweedy jackets and hats you see on grouse moors. And everybody was terribly well spoken.

A little after 6.30pm, a sound — more than a murmur, if not quite a roar — raced through the crowd. Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, was emerging from the building. Many of those waiting had voted Tory earlier this year, but this evening they regarded him as the enemy. Hammond wants to send trains at 250mph along a new railway to be built through their back yards — if not their homes.

In the crowd were Neil and Vanessa Shepherd-Smith, both in their early sixties. They recently moved into a farm and extensively renovated it to the highest green specifications, complete with ground-source heating. “It was going to be a retirement home,” Neil says glumly.

One of their married children also moved in, to raise pigs. “When news of the railway line emerged, word went quickly round the village. It turned out that the track is going to be built just 10 yards from our house.”

The visit was one of a series by Hammond to areas through which the new line may pass, to determine which route is best — or, rather, least worst. It’s a contentious business: although he confirmed in a speech to last week’s Conservative conference the outline of a Y-shaped route from London to Birmingham, then on northwest via Manchester and northeast via Leeds, its precise path has not yet been decided. This will happen only after a public consultation, due to begin in the new year — creating huge uncertainty for anyone living anywhere near the proposed route.

From glamorous Primrose Hill, near the proposed line’s start in Euston, and out through the suburbs and countryside, residents have formed action groups to oppose the rail link, known as High Speed Two, or HS2 (HS1 is the line connecting London to the Channel tunnel). It has so far been less contentious in the north.

Protesters insist that their objection is to the very idea of such a line. Is it really “green”, they ask, to concrete over an area of countryside the size of greater Manchester for fast trains that will use vastly more energy than conventional ones? And can we really afford the £33 billion price tag?

Still, it’s impossible for them to avoid talking about how the line will affect them personally — even though they are sensitive to accusations of self-interest.

“It is easy for the secretary of state to write us off as nimbys,” says Belinda Naylor, one of the protesters. “But who else is going to stand up for the precious, traditional English countryside?”

Kaz Majcher, managing director at Temples estate agency in Aylesbury, confirms the effect of blight: he has recently seen would-be buyers lose interest in moving to the area. “People do their homework before buying these days. You can’t convince them that the railway isn’t going to happen for 20 years, because they’re worried about the resale value,” he says.

Such are the concerns, Knight Frank estate agency has set up a 12-strong HS2 department to deal with “exceptional hardship” claims — under which people who urgently need to sell their home can ask the government to buy it. At least 20 people have applied so far.

James Del Mar, the team’s head, says they have already seen 100 cases. “This is seriously traumatic,” he says. “I visited a couple the other day. They’re in their late fifties and weren’t thinking of moving any time soon. The railway was originally going to clip their garden. Now it looks as if it will demolish the house altogether. The stress on people is huge.”

Also protesting at Aylesbury were Adam Thomas and Agnes Fletcher, with their baby, Cara. They have expensively converted a barn for wheelchair access (Adam had a serious motorbike accident years ago) and fear that the government is unlikely to reimburse them for all their investment.

The proposed line has thrown all kinds of other plans into disarray. In Aylesbury alone, it has put an end to previous proposals for a bypass and for 26,000 new homes.

At a news conference, Hammond dutifully acknowledged people’s “concern” and mentioned ideas for mitigating noise. Neither the local journalist in the hall nor the crowd waiting outside seemed much impressed by his assurances.

“Mr Hammond, can I express my personal frustration about this?” one man asked, in what turned out to be an entirely rhetorical question. “Will you put it underground, minister?” shouted another. “Have you thought about upgrading the Chiltern Line?” “Why not make trains longer?”

Hammond remained polite, but eventually looked as if he’d had enough. Then a woman shouted out her theory that the minister’s interest in the project is rooted in psychological flaws. “This is showcase politics,” she exclaimed. “You just think it’s sexier to have a new line.”

Hammond seized his chance to escape. “If the debate is to be conducted in this way, there is no point going on.” And off he went — appropriately enough, at high speed.

On the wrong side of the tracks

What is a CPO?
A compulsory purchase order obliges you to sell your home to the government or local authority to make way for a project in the national interest, such as a new road or railway line.

Can you object to a CPO?
Yes, but you have to wait until it has actually been issued, which will happen only once a scheme has been confirmed. In the case of HS2, there will be a public consultation process, expected in the autumn. At that stage, the “acquiring authority” — likely to be the Department for Transport — must publish information about the project. Homeowners can then make objections, usually via a website, by email or letter.

What compensation is offered?
There is no set rule. Normally, it is the “market value” of the property, but this can vary according to when the valuation is carried out, and may even be depressed by “blight” affecting the area in anticipation of the work. It is up to individual homeowners to appeal against the valuation. An extra amount, called a home-loss payment, can also be made as compensation for “distress and inconvenience”. This is presently set at 10% of the market value, up to a maximum of £47,000.

Are there any other payments? 
In the case of HS2, an “exceptional hardship scheme” has been proposed. It covers cases where people need to sell before a CPO is issued — because of a new job, say, or for family reasons — but cannot find a buyer. For this to apply, the property would need to have been on sale for three months and have received no offers within 15% of the asking price.Applications are now open. You do not need expert advice to apply, but can download the application forms and guidance at www.hs2.org.uk/exceptional-hardship-scheme. You can also call the scheme’s helpline on 020 7944 4908.

Source: Fisher German, fishergerman.co.uk

1215 words. First published 10 October 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.