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HS2 Ltd and Local Community Relations

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

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 the Member for Pendle (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.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) for giving me this opportunity to make a short speech. I have a similar problem to him. I have a dossier, which of course I have already passed to the Minister, who has kindly agreed to come up to my constituency. We have had 10 years of misery with HS2’s miscommunications, as we have struggled to navigate a clear path forward with it. Farmers have received plans that cut their farms in half, severing access to their land and property. Notices have been served as late as possible and with ill consideration for damage and jeopardy. We have had loss of crops and late payment of agreed fees, causing significant cash-flow problems and financial ruin. Land has been left in a deplorable state. HS2 has threatened to acquire “every area of land” with

“no assurance that any right of access will be granted in a substantive form”.

It has deployed unnecessary and intimidating security on farms that have been family homes for generations. In another instance, no offer of a price for a property had been made nine months after the valuer himself had been along to have a look at it.

The bottom line is that this is completely and totally unacceptable. The truth is that HS2 needs to be given a real rocket, and I look forward to the Minister doing just that. If he does not, and my constituents continue to live in the misery to which they have been subjected over all these years, it will be a disgrace. It is a disgrace already, but it can be rectified. I look forward to the Minister coming up to my constituency—north and south—so that we can have a proper discussion and he can see for himself how HS2 has let my constituency down.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) for securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for his contribution.

I grew up in a part of the country where both HS2 and East West Rail are under construction, and indeed, I shall be in that town this weekend again. I therefore fully recognise the change and upheaval that HS2 can bring to the communities that it passes through, represented by my hon. Friends and by Members across the House. As construction approaches its peak, so too does the level of disruption, and I appreciate that road closures, lorry movements and noise are now a lived reality for many people. I want to see HS2 Ltd leave a positive legacy for communities. Communities should be appropriately consulted, responded to efficiently and objectively, involved in plans and informed about the works affecting them.

When things go wrong, which happens from time to time, efforts should be made to learn from mistakes and come back with better solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden mentioned his constituents Mr Stephen Fletcher and Mr Iain Smith. I will write to him and ensure that the matter is investigated. Where matters need to be dealt with in their favour, we will do just that.

Perhaps I may focus on the two matters that were brought up with regard to fixed structures, and indeed the roads. First, I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern about the design of the Balsall Common viaduct and the process that HS2 Ltd has gone through to develop it. As I said in my letter to him, which he referenced, I am keen to ensure that the process of engaging local communities in the design of the project’s key elements, such as the viaduct, is working well. I am aware that HS2 Ltd has held a number of well-attended engagement events and briefings with local people and their representatives as the design has progressed over the year. Although I am assured by HS2 Ltd that the viaduct has been carefully designed to reflect its environmental context and position, I have also heard—as the House has heard from my hon. Friend—that the engagement feels like an explaining rather than a listening event.

I am keen to put on the record that good community ideas and suggestions must be heard and worked upon. That is not only good to ensure that the community receives the legacy that they want, but it is polite. It is important to note that the options considered as part of the design process are constrained by certain factors, such as the structural performance requirements of a high-speed railway. My hon. Friend has made unfavourable comparisons with the design of another HS2 viaduct further south in Colne Valley, which I visited some weeks back. HS2 Ltd stresses that it is a different type of structure in a different context. However, like me, HS2 Ltd will have heard my hon. Friend’s call for the viaduct to fit with the local area and character. The schedule 17 application for the design of the Balsall Common viaduct was submitted in January, and the decision currently rests with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council. I will await its decision with interest, as I know will my hon. Friend.

Let me turn to the matters raised on Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane and the appeals. I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the use of lorry routes in Balsall Common. The inspector has made a recommendation to Ministers on the appeal, and the issue is now being considered by Ministers in my Department and in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We anticipate a decision in the coming weeks. In the meantime, my hon. Friend will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the case, although I can say that the House has heard his views on the appropriateness of Waste Lane and Kelsey Lane.

Turning to community engagement concerns, including the matters referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, the Department takes the monitoring of HS2 construction seriously. HS2 Ltd and its contractors are held to account by the independent construction commissioner, the HS2 residents commissioner and the Department for Transport’s team of independent construction inspectors. I met the HS2 construction commissioner in February, and the residents commissioner before that, to discuss current issues affecting communities and to better understand how HS2 Ltd and its contractors are responding to those challenges. Regular reporting is just one of the ways in which we monitor and proactively assure not just the cost and efficiency of the project, but how HS2 is being delivered. HS2 Ltd and its contractors are rightly required to comply with exacting environmental requirements, including a comprehensive code of construction practice, which specifies measures to minimise the full range of impacts that any construction project has on affected people and communities, as well as all the undertakings, assurance and environmental commitments contained in the HS2 Acts.

Effective communication with affected parties is also crucial. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden and for Stone for giving examples of when we do not always get it right but we need to do so. I am committed to making sure that issues are resolved as quickly as possible and lessons are learned for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone delivered a litany of concerns on behalf of his constituents. He has asked for a rocket to be delivered. I am not sure I will be arriving in his constituency in a rocket, but I will come. He has asked me to see whether these matters can be rectified. I know, working in partnership with him, that we have every chance of doing a better job, if he feels that job is not being done at the moment. I look forward to visiting him and his constituents.

To conclude, I will continue to work as Rail Minister with hon. and right hon. Members and others in the community on making sure that we get the delivery of infrastructure projects right. I want HS2 to be an example to other transport projects, not just in what it delivers, but in the way it is delivered, and I recognise that that means making improvements, learning from experience and changing how we operate in order to become better, and I am committed to HS2 Ltd doing that. Limiting construction impacts in the first place should be a primary concern for all working on HS2, but so should treating people and places with the respect they deserve and ensuring that any impacts are mitigated or avoided when not required.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden and for Stone for this debate. It is vital that we continue to discuss our transport projects openly and transparently and that all hon. and right hon. Members use this Chamber to press me to ensure that their constituents are represented, as has happened here today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.