HS2 cancellation: CLA analysis

Following news of the cancelled HS2 route from Birmingham to Manchester, the CLA’s John Greenshields explains how affected rural landowners and businesses must be supported
Aerial shot of fields and railway

This week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the cancellation of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester. At first glance this may be welcomed by those who are directly affected, but the announcements do not come with sufficient information about what this ‘cancellation’ actually means.

Many CLA members have already had their property taken, and they remain in the dark about what the future holds. Even for those who have retained their land, the threat of HS2 very much remains alive until the compulsory purchase powers are formally extinguished. We have seen this with the eastern leg of HS2, running from Birmingham to Leeds, which was cancelled in 2021 but remains safeguarded. Therefore, uncertainty remains, and safeguarding prohibits any other development on impacted area that could conflict with HS2.

The experience many have had with HS2 means that to give individuals and businesses certainty, formal guarantees and a code of conducts are required. Guarantees must not be limited to the removal of safeguarding on land; they need to confirm how land is to be offered back to the original owners.

Where no compensation has been paid to a landowner, this should be a relatively simple task of transferring the property back to the original owner. This is a process that must be done swiftly, however, the government has an unflattering history when it comes to HS2 decisions, as noted by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) report (Thursday 27 May 2021), which states:

“HS2 was dishonest, misleading and inconsistent, and failed to follow its own processes when negotiating compensation claims with the complainant for their family home.”

While the news of the cancellation has grabbed the headlines, too little attention is paid to those whose homes and livelihoods have been impacted by the scheme – the financial impact and prolonged emotional pressure is unprecedented for many. The announcement has given little information to individuals and businesses - almost as if HS2 had never existed.

The CLA perspective

The CLA will continue to engage with HS2 Ltd, who will need to adapt following the announcement. This process will take time and could amplify uncertainty for many people, which is why it is essential that detailed explanations of what is included in HS2’s cancellation are produced quickly. It cannot be a precedent that acquirers of failed projects are able to retain land and/or sell them on the open market for profit, especially when government is currently looking to reduce compensation provisions for compulsory purchase projects in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

It is unjust for acquirers to retain land for a cancelled project and not provide the original owner with the opportunity of ‘first refusal.’ The CLA is calling for an independent body that can help windup the cancelled HS2 routes and hold HS2 Ltd and its contractors to account. HS2 has proven that there is an inherent imbalance in compulsory purchase legislation, which leads to unfairness.

The CLA is also calling on the strengthening and formalisation of non-statutory Crichel Down Rules. These apply where land that is no longer required to be first offered back to the original owner. We believe that there is no justification for the acquirer to retain land purchased by compulsion, or via the threat of compulsion, when the need for it has been abandoned. This is now the appropriate opportunity to address an ineffectual area, as highlighted in the government’s 2000 research paper: The Operation of Crichel Down Rules.

An independent body will be necessary to address land remediation works where HS2 has already put a spade in the ground, and focus on issues relating to the transfer back of property to the original owner. The land transfer may require further considerations, especially where the area has not been returned to its original condition. While this should be a relatively simple process, there is currently a lack of procedure that allows the project to be fairly and cleanly wound-up. The UK Government, in announcing the cancellation of HS2, must swiftly address details of how these specific routes will be dealt with.

Farmers and landowners experience "poor treatment" from HS2