Analysis: Farmers forced to sell up by HS2 need clarity

HS2 was heralded by the Conservative government as an integral part of its Northern Powerhouse strategy, a high-speed rail project that would bridge the North-South divide and rebalance the economy.

Announcing the project in 2014, then-chancellor George Osborne declared that he wanted to create a Northern Powerhouse that would connect “not one city, but a collection of northern cities, sufficiently close to each other that, combined, they can take on the world”.

Since Mr Osborne’s speech, the High Speed 2 (HS2) Rail Link project has been mired in controversy and mismanagement, including soaring costs, construction delays and, more recently, government decisions to scrap whole sections of the line.

See also: Farmers may not get their land back, despite HS2 being ditched

Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced on 4 October that Phases 2a and 2b of the HS2 link from Birmingham to Manchester had been cancelled, but confirmed the high-speed line would still finish at Euston rather than Old Oak Common in west London.

The eastern leg of HS2, linking Manchester to Leeds, was scrapped in November 2021.

The confirmation that Phase 2 is being ditched follows the government’s own analysis which found the cost of completing the whole project had ballooned from £33bn a decade ago to more than £100bn, eight times the cost of comparable European projects.

Mr Sunak pledged that “every pound” of the £36bn earmarked for the remaining Birmingham to Manchester leg would be ploughed into Network North – an alternative programme of infrastructure investment including improvements to roads, railways and bus services.

HS2 Ltd, the government-owned company behind the scheme, is said to have spent more than £423m buying up more than 400 properties and land, including many farm businesses, on the now-scrapped Manchester to Birmingham route.

Emotional toll

NFU senior rural surveyor Louise Staples says the cancellation of Phase 2 has left many farmers who have had land taken facing more uncertainty and delay.

Some farmers along Phase 2a (Birmingham to Crewe) will have had land compulsorily purchased, but no land has been taken along 2b as the Bill had not yet received Royal assent before the cancellation.

The biggest problem is the number of different scenarios facing farmers along the Phase 2 stretch within the negotiation with HS2 Ltd, in terms of land being taken and compensation being paid or owed.

Some farmers have already made plans to change their businesses, Ms Staples says. For example, one dairy farmer plans to set up a beef herd because he can no longer milk cows due to the constraints HS2 placed on his land.

Others have made plans to move and set up farming businesses elsewhere. Some have even received planning permission to build new farmhouses and buildings.

Land ‘seized’ for golf

Mixed farmer Andrew Collier was farming about 485ha in Ingestre, Staffordshire, until 2021 when HS2 Ltd told him it wanted to compulsorily purchase one side of his farm to build the Trent Valley Viaduct.

Overall, HS2 Ltd has compulsorily purchased 142ha of his land, including 40ha of Grade 2 and 3 agricultural land to build a new golf course, replacing an existing one in Ingestre which was bisected by the proposed route.

Against Mr Collier’s will, workers built the new golf course under temporary acquisition on safeguarded land.

“They sent enforcement officers in to establish their land clearance programme,” Mr Collier says. “They put in security guards with German Shepherds to enforce their land clearance operation.”

Andrew Collier wearing a cap and fleece standing on grass with a young tree in the background

© Andrew Collier

Construction of the new golf course started in spring 2021 and it is now almost complete.

The land was valued two-and-a-half years before completion on 29 September, 2023. Mr Collier told HS2 Ltd he was not happy with the valuation, but was told if he wanted to challenge it he would have to go to a tribunal.

HS2 Ltd has paid Mr Collier in full for land and property it has taken, but he says it still owes him compensation for two years of crop losses and many other out-of-pocket expenses.

“Until they started paying me, I was living out of savings for two years because they had not been paying me for all my losses,” he says.

Because of the land seized, Mr Collier could not claim basic payments in 2021 and 2022. He says he is also owed the capitalisation of basic payments for the years 2023 to 2028, but HS2 Ltd is reluctant to pay.

“They have plucked the heart of my farming business,” he says. “At the age of 70, to start to rebuild it back to where it was is a formidable task.”

The Crichel Down Rules covering compulsory purchase require government departments to offer back surplus land to the former owners under certain circumstances.

Mr Collier questions how the rules apply when HS2 Ltd has seized land and built permanent structures on it.

“Should a golf club be allowed to have two golf courses at the expense of destroying my farming business?” he asks.

‘Left in limbo’

Phil and Dorothy Smallwood, of Greenheyes Farm in Middlewich, Cheshire, say their farming plans have been “left in limbo” for years due to the uncertainty surrounding HS2.

If Phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester) had gone ahead, HS2 Ltd planned to bulldoze the whole of the 40ha mixed tenant farm, which is part of the Bostock Estate.

With the uncertainty surrounding the rail project, neither the Smallwoods nor the estate owner could see the point of investing in the dairy business with the proposed demolition no more than 10 years away.

The couple now primarily rear youngstock alongside beef cattle and a small sheep flock, having ceased milking three years ago.

“We were told we were in the ‘red zone’ and our farm was going to be demolished,” Mr Smallwood says.

“The line was going to be 30 yards to the side of our Georgian farmhouse. That was all going to go too.

“It has been the limbo factor that has been terrible for everybody, including our landlord. You can’t plan, you can’t do anything.”

But Mr Smallwood, 63, says the farm seemed to have been thrown a lifeline after Mr Sunak announced plans to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg – and the Labour party says it will not fund it either if it wins power at the next general election.

Man standing in a field

© Phil Smallwood

Calls for clarity

The NFU has written to the Department for Transport (DfT) to demand clarity and swift support for farmers regarding the return of land compulsorily purchased ahead of Phase 2.

NFU vice-president David Exwood says it is essential that the DfT gives former landowners first refusal to buy back land.

“The longer the delay in getting this process up and running, the greater the chance of issues arising which will make it more difficult to return land in an efficient and satisfactory way,” he says.

The NFU says safeguarding protections restricting development must be lifted in the coming weeks for Phase 2a (Birmingham to Crewe) and no later than next year for Phase 2b (Crewe to Manchester), as stated in the government’s Network North paper.

The government says it needs time to work out what land may still be needed under different proposals for Network North.

Farmer confidence hit

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has also written to transport minister Huw Merriman demanding clarity for farmers whose land has been acquired under compulsory purchase.

CLA president Mark Tufnell says: “Farmers and landowners have faced up to 15 years of disruption and uncertainty because of HS2.

“A month after the cancellation of the Birmingham-Manchester route, farmers still have no clarity about their rights, or what will happen to the land. 

“This process has undermined confidence in the whole compulsory purchase system.” 

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are taking time to develop a clear programme for selling land no longer needed for HS2 and will set out more details in due course.

“We will ensure our approach provides value for the taxpayer and will fully engage with the communities who are affected throughout this process.”

HS2 Ltd awaits government orders on cancelled Phase 2

HS2 Ltd has told Farmers Weekly it is waiting for information from the government about how it plans to deal with property it no longer requires along the cancelled Phase 2 stretch.

The government-owned company has confirmed that it has been told to stop issuing new compulsory purchase notices.

It has also been asked to wind down the Phase 2a (Birmingham to Crewe) land acquisition programme as quickly as possible.

HS2 Ltd says the government is reviewing options for the Phase 2b Bill currently before parliament, as it recognises that parts of the Crewe-Manchester route are needed to enable delivery of Northern Powerhouse Rail.

For areas on the route that are not required to deliver NPR, the government has asked HS2 Ltd to stop accepting new applications under the non-statutory property schemes (with the exception of Need to Sell).

HS2 saga yet to fully unfold, says expert

The fallout from the cancellation of Phase 2 of HS2 will cast a shadow of uncertainty across the farming landscape for many months, if not years, according to Tim Broomhead, a partner at Knight Frank.

Mr Broomhead is advising several clients on HS2 compulsory purchase orders.

His clients had begun to reconcile themselves with losing their land, but the government U-turn means they must now deal with the disruption and emotional turmoil of possibly getting it back.

The Crichel Down Rules covering compulsory purchase require that land surplus to requirements must be offered back to the original owner at market value.

Mr Broomhead predicts there will be “winners and losers” in this process, with any delays further exacerbated by the volatile land market, where prices may surge, leaving both landowners and HS2 Ltd in a risky position.

Many farmer cases have been complicated by the acquisition of “piecemeal” bits of land, he notes.

“While the government is mandated by the rules to seek the best value, it’s unclear how this will pan out in a scheme where the land acquired is an incomplete corridor, making the situation far from straightforward,” Mr Broomhead explains.

“Some landowners may strike favourable deals, while others could incur significant costs in reclaiming their land.”

Whatever the outcome, he says the repercussions of HS2’s actions “will leave a lasting physical mark on our farmlands and emotional scars on farmers and surrounding communities”.