HS2: George Osborne's £32bn route to political suicide?
The second phase of the HS2 rail link will cut through the Chancellor’s constituency – where he’s not finding any favour with the residents, writes Jonathan Brown
Richard Winward inherited the tenancy of Millington Hall Farm from his father.
His 190 acres of prime arable land and their distinctive red brick buildings mark them out as part of the ancient Tatton estate occupying one of Cheshire’s most sought after positions just 16 miles from Manchester city centre yet set in some of the county’s most sumptuous countryside.
But last week Mr Winward and his wife Pam woke up to find that their rural way of life could be under terminal threat. One arm of the northern extension of the Government’s new high speed rail link (HS2) will hurtle at speeds of up to 225mph through the land which the Winwards have tilled for more than half a century.
“We are not very big but the important thing is that we need good sized fields so that we can operate a crop rotation. If the fields are carved up, the farm will no longer be viable,” explained Mr Winward, 54.
The new route, whose announcement on Monday stunned locals, will piggy back on a planned £174m bypass road designed to ease congestion through neighbouring villages but which has been staunchly opposed by those living nearby and prompted a 1,400 strong lobby group against it.
Even before news of HS2 the Winwards were set to lose 30 acres from their fields when bulldozers began clearing the way for the Highway Agency’s new A556.
“The road was very upsetting and we had to deal with that. And then we get this and it is just unbelievable. That is how I feel. It is too outrageous to even contemplate. They are determined to stick everything over this area,” said Pam Winward.
Millington Hall Farm is to the north west of George Osborne’s sprawling constituency of Tatton, a well-heeled Tory stronghold which has been returning Conservative MPs (with the exception of one-term anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell in 1997) since the Marquess of Salisbury was Prime Minister.
Amid the hullabaloo of the announcement of the £32bn infrastructure project this week the Chancellor found himself at the centre of a row in which he was accused of lobbying the Department of Transport to move the route of the proposed new rail line.
It was alleged that Mr Osborne had succeeded in diverting the track away from the famous ‘Golden Triangle’ of Prestbury, Alderley Edge and Wilmslow – home to a number of Premiership footballers such as Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand who have spent recent years rebuilding the country mansions of the old-money county set.
Suspicion over the Chancellor’s role in the selection of the route was inflamed when Cheshire East council leader Michael Jones issued a statement praising Mr Osborne and fellow Tory Edward Timpson for having “fought hard to keep the line away from Knutsford and Tatton, which we have been successful in achieving.”
Although this was hastily retracted, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband pounced on the issue suggesting the Chancellor should “spend more time worrying about the economy and less time worrying about how to divert high-speed rail routes away from his constituency.”
Mr Osborne has since fiercely denied any involvement in creating the “dog leg” sparing the more major towns and was defended by the Prime Minister who pointed out that the track would cut straight through his constituency on its way to Manchester airport. The following day Cheshire East council issued a fresh statement insisting that the Chancellor had “no say whatsoever over the proposed route”.
Ian Jordan, HS2 Leeds, Manchester and Heathrow project director said yesterday that the route was derived from a “balance of passenger demand, cost, engineering and the impacts on the environment and communities”.
Yet the national campaign group the HS2 National Alliance believes that the Department for Transport is guilty of changing the goalposts.
Each mile of the new railway will cost £93m with the suggested six mile detour adding more than £500m to the final cost, it points out.
“All the debate about phase one (London to Birmingham) was that it had to go as straight as a die so that it could reach 225mph. Now it suddenly starts to curve and swerve around. No one will find out what the discussions were but it is certainly inconsistent,” said alliance spokesman Richard Houghton.
It did not help that Mr Osborne – who toured the television studios hailing the line as an “engine of growth” that would create thousands of jobs and bring prosperity to cities outside London – sold his constituency home near Macclesfield two years ago amid threatened boundary changes.
Rail experts however pointed out that that route in its proposed form will help regenerate Crewe. It will provide scope for a future spur linking Merseyside as it snakes along past the M6 and M53 motorways en route to Manchester where it must pass through a seven and a half mile tunnel under thousands of homes before terminating at new high speed platforms at Piccadilly.
When it is completed in 2032 the journey from Manchester to Euston will be cut by half to 68 minutes. But even if the Chancellor is in the clear over the allegations of manipulating the route, the current proposal is equally unlikely to earn him many friends in the affected locations.
“There is a feeling that he has betrayed this area,” said Mrs Winward. “My friends have been trying to sell their home here but as soon as the buyer finds out about the road they withdraw their offer,” she added.
Councillor Steve Wilkinson, ward member for High Legh, one of the affected villages, said HS2 could “annihilate” local businesses. “Residents are in shock and dismay,” he told the Knutsford Guardian.
“It doesn’t make my life any easier and we are both the same political persuasion but it doesn’t make it easier for him either. I’ve got a lot of questions for George Osborne and the main one is ‘why?’
“I don’t believe this will do him any favours at the next election but that is the political risk that he has taken. It affects so many people and so many of them will be Conservative voters,” he added.
There are already murmurings among residents that a local candidate should come forward and stand against the Chancellor at the next general election.
Chris Matthews, 61, said those that could, would vote with their feet. “We moved here from Timperley for a nice quiet retirement and to get away from suburbia – not to be within 25m of a road and now a railway. We won’t live with it. We will just go,” he said.
One community leader, who asked not to be named, said: “This is political suicide for George Osborne to be seen to be spending all this money in his region while everywhere else is being cut.”
The local Campaign to Protect Rural England, which already opposes the proposed A556 bypass, is meeting next week to discuss its view on the plan for the rail route. It is just one of a number of gatherings taking place over the coming days including those of the first action groups in Staffordshire.
Alliance spokesman Mr Houghton added: “It is easy for people to wave their arms about and say we are all Nimbys but a lot of the organisations involved are not on the line.
“They may be concerned about money being sucked out of the rail system or who think driving a train line through areas of outstanding natural beauty is a bad idea”.
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