It is a shining endorsement of how well the Brexit Firewall has kept almost everything else out of the headlines, that last month Panorama could take a story that broke in June and package it as ‘news’. So long had it been in since whistle-blower Doug Thornton first lifted the lid on what he called a ‘petrifying overspend’ on the £56bn HS2 project, that the National Audit Office has completed their investigation concluded he was correct. Thornton walked out at HS2 Ltd because he felt he was being asked to lie to the board, because he had realised the £1.1bn projected property cost on Phase 1 that had been presented to Parliament was running nearer to £3.2bn, with not only having hundreds of properties significantly undervalued, but hundreds more not valued at all.
Bizarrely, the NAO concluded that Parliament hadn’t actually been misled, but only because there was no requirement on HS2 Ltd to present a financial estimate that was actually based on facts. To avoid further embarrassment, updated estimates of HS2 land and property costs are now classified on the grounds of commercial sensitivity. The excuse seriously being that if we knew the grand total cost of buying thousands of plots of land, we’d be able to work out how much each one is worth.
Since then, HS2 Ltd have been merrily seizing land and property – mostly businesses – along the proposed route without paying for it. Many people happily handed over keys as they naively – and that is such a horrible word to have to use in the circumstances – thought “It’s a Government project, of course we’ll get our money”. A perfect example of what happens next saw one landlord who used to get an annual rental income of £30,000 initially being offered £46,000 by HS2 Ltd for his plot.
So much has this sort of tactic become standard practice with HS2 Ltd, that you feel there must have been a conversation at a high level where it was decided that it would be a PR disaster to evict people from their homes without paying for them, but in the case of businesses, this would be absolutely fine. Of course if your home and business are the same thing, such as the well-publicised Bree Louise or many of the farms along the route, it’s a bit more grey with some getting paid, and others not, but it is pretty standard not to pay businesses up front, even for the cost of relocation, when HS2 take their property.
Some might say that the way HS2 Ltd have been operating is fraud on an industrial scale, a deliberate act to shift ballooning costs into the never-never, an opinion validated by the views of compensation expert Sarah Beer, who says that with farms, the game plan from HS2 Ltd is certainly to “push the limits of its powers” so it can “postpone having to shell out money for the land it will permanently acquire”.
Sadly none of this is new: HS1 opened with land payments outstanding; over-budget Crossrail still hasn’t paid for property it has possessed for years; and the M6 Toll was overlooked with a sign saying “Highway robbery, this land has not been paid for” when it opened. Whilst many of the sharp practices that lead to these situations can break the Compensation Code as laid down in various Acts of Parliament, there is no legislated penalty for breaking it, and HS2 predates recent changes to the law. So while there might be a legal requirement to make requested ‘advance payments’, meaning that HS2 Ltd should pay 90% of their estimated value of a property within three months of taking possession, they simply don’t, just as many before them have done. HS2 Ltd are regularly refusing to even start negotiations with businesses until the keys, and therefore all the power is in their hands, with one evicted business owner describing the conversations he had as: “We’re going pay you, we’re going pay you, we’re going pay you. Thanks for your keys. Nah, we’re not going to pay you. You might want to contact your mortgage provider and ask about going into special measures.”
If you’d have hoped that the glaring spotlight of the Panorama expose would have seen HS2 Ltd change their ways, you may have missed the smirking HS2 CEO Mark Thurston saying it is “not our intent to bankrupt people”, when it is a totally expected and completely predictable consequence of their actions. This Tuesday, Central News followed up on one of the people feautured on Panorama, Adnan Bhatti, a small trader who reckons he is due £75,000 for the costs associated with relocating his business.
The response from HS2 Ltd was typical. Whilst they have got multi-billion pound government backing, it is down to the landowner to get all the paperwork right, and it seems that on a serial basis HS2 Ltd will find fault -any fault they can- with their documents. Previously, Bhattis’ landlord Darren Bartlett was initially refused his compensation claim because HS2 Ltd found a tiny discrepancy in the boundary between his land and the next door property which he had never known about. This turned out to be was one of the most inconsequential niggles you could possibly imagine, as HS2 Ltd had already bought the next door plot. In the case of Mr Bhatti, whilst HS2 Ltd told ITV that they are ‘waiting for the correct paperwork’, they told Bhatti that because the business he set up with his cousin is in his name but it is his cousin’s name is on the property lease, he doesn’t qualify for compensation, demonstrating that as soon as HS2 Ltd identify the smallest loophole they will slither through it.
The day after, HS2 Ltd were due to evict HW Taroni, a third-generation scrap metal firm that in their own words have “Been keeping Birmingham Tidy for 60 years”. HW Taroni is technically one site, but is split up by roads and railways. This hasn’t made things easier, with conversations since 2011 with HS2 Ltd going through stages of them only wanting to take parts of the site, and then maybe only on a temporary basis, with it finally and belatedly concluding with HS2 Ltd deciding they need the whole thing forever.
As you might imagine, find a new site to move a scrapyard to, getting the permissions needed to operate on that site, and then physically making the move is not a simple, straightforward or cheap thing to do. Yet again HS2 Ltd has not paid out a single penny. So with HS2 Ltd insisting that they were going to take possession and HW Taroni needing more time, they decided they weren’t going to hand over the keys and Central came along to see what happened.
HW Taroni had of course told HS2 Ltd well in advance that they weren’t going to hand over the keys, which was all they could do as a direct result of being ignored when they had asked for more time. Because that’s the thing, although they claim to be £3 million down at this point as a result of enduring the cost of the move, they were only asking for time to complete the move and HS2 Ltd had been unwilling to entertain even talking about that, even with twelve jobs on the line. In the end, HS2 Ltd only agreed to a meeting on the day itself, but in the end chickened out and then said they wouldn’t come because the press were there, seemingly unaware that it was only their complete reticence to engage in reasonable conversation that meant the press had been invited in the first place.
One thing touched on by Central illustrates the perfect idiocy dictating the way HS2 Ltd are operating in these circumstances, as they mention the weighbridge on site that needs to be moved. To move what is a sixty year old weighbridge and reinstall it at the new site will cost £50,000. To buy a brand new weighbridge and install it at the new site would cost £30,000, but they can’t do that, because that is betterment, and that isn’t allowed. So with the perversity that permeates the entire scheme, HS2 Ltd are insisting they have to take the high cost option no matter how ridiculous it is.
That makes a great slogan to sum up the project; “Worse for us, worse for you, we burn your money, we’re HS2.”