David Cameron ignores those living in modest homes blighted by the HS2 rail link at his peril

My Easter walk on Monday was tinged with sadness, because it took me through countryside that will no longer exist in five years' time. This is because, as wealthy landowners in the Chilterns look forward to the HS2 high-speed rail link being tunnelled beneath them, ordinary working families along the rest of the route have fallen into a political black hole.

No one at Westminster, least of all David Cameron, appears to be in the slightest bit interested in people living in modest homes blighted by the line in places like the West Midlands. Tory ministers have derided them as Nimbys. Labour figures have derided them as toffs. The problem is, they are neither.

This month the high court ordered the government to reopen the consultation on compensation after it ruled that the way householders were treated was so unfair as to be illegal. I am told by the Department for Transport that everything is again on the table, including the idea of a property bond, by which the government would underwrite the value of homes affected and be the purchaser of last resort, guaranteeing the price that properties would have fetched before HS2 was announced.

This would be like manna from heaven to many families because, as things stand, the values of hundreds of homes not deemed close enough to the line to get any compensation have plummeted.

My parents live in a three-bedroom semi very near the line, just outside Coventry. They are not posh Chilterns people, who managed to get half a billion pounds worth of tunnelling. And they are not posh Cheshire people either. As it continues north, the line miraculously skirts around the wealthy eastern side of George Osborne's Tatton constituency.

In the politically grey area of the Midlands, people whose lives are being blighted right now have been pushed aside as a minor inconvenience. Coventry may not be an area of outstanding natural beauty, but the line will still rip the heart out of the community in which I grew up. The precious, already shrinking countryside where I used to play as a child will be carved up. An entire village called Burton Green will disappear.

The line is going past my parents' house, but because it is more than 60 metres away they are not entitled to compensation – even though the value of their home has collapsed. After working hard all their lives and being passionate about their community – my mother was doing "big society" stuff before Steve Hilton decided he had invented it – they face spending their retirement suffering the noise of 250mph trains, unable to move because they can't sell.

But it is the cavalier tone this government has deployed to deal with them that tells you everything you need to know about Cameron. Over the past three years, my parents and their neighbours have received letters from numerous Tory transport secretaries. The tenor of all of them is the same. The message is basically: "Stop complaining. Think of the benefits. Not for you, obviously. You're losing your local train station. But think of all those rich businessmen who will be able to get to Birmingham 10 minutes quicker."

Wealthy people in the Chilterns are worth appeasing because they are opinion formers and party donors, and people who might make things awkward over dinner in Chipping Norton. Middle Britons who live in semis, on the other hand, the prime minister has never really got the point of them.

This is in stark contrast to previous Tory leaders. William Hague, though hampered by other shortcomings, did do one thing right. He sang the praises of those he called "pebbledash people". He understood that the strivers were the backbone of Britain.

Lord Ashcroft, when he does his research on the rise of Ukip, also seems to grasp this. His private polling has found that the aspirational middle classes in areas like the Midlands are not flocking to Nigel Farage's party because they are angry about Europe, but because they do not think Cameron understands or even particularly likes them.

They feel more comfortable with a party that does not denounce shopkeepers and hairdressers as "fruitcakes, loons and closet racists" because they are worried about crime and immigration, as Cameron once did. With this in mind, Farage could do worse than form an electoral pact with Stop HS2 candidates at the next election.

As for Cameron, he should listen to families who live in blighted homes along the route of his grand project, not belittle and patronise them. He may not get the point of pebbledash people now, but he may get the point if they stop voting for him.

Melissa Kite

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source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/31/hs2-pebbledash-rebel-high-speed-rail


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