The real victims of the HS2 fiasco: Devastated families whose homes were sold on the


Broom Manor is an elegant 19th-century mansion — or, at least, it used to be — near the upmarket town of Knutsford in the heart of the Cheshire countryside.

It boasts seven bedrooms, stables, adjoining cottages and garaging around an internal courtyard.

‘The fine living space includes sumptuous bathroom and kitchen fittings, great style with period features blended with clever modern technology,’ is how an estate agent marketed the property shortly before it was sold for £1,385,250 in July 2014 — substantially less than what is was worth.

Owner James Hilton had little choice but to accept the offer from HS2 Ltd, the Government-funded company responsible for delivering the now-cancelled northern leg of the rail link to Manchester, because it would have scythed through his garden.

The moment the route was announced (in 2013) his property, like dozens of others in Cheshire — home to wealthy professionals, soap stars and footballers — became worthless on the open market.

Broom Manor is an elegant 19th-century mansion ¿ or, at least, it used to be ¿ near the upmarket town of Knutsford in the heart of the Cheshire countryside

Broom Manor is an elegant 19th-century mansion — or, at least, it used to be — near the upmarket town of Knutsford in the heart of the Cheshire countryside

‘It was just take it or leave it,’ said businessman Mr Hilton, 57, who spent £500,000 renovating his home but insists he got nearly £115,000 less for Broom Manor than he should have done.

‘You can see from the estate agent’s brochure that house was immaculate when HS2 bought it,’ he said.

Today, the property bears little resemblance to the one advertised in those glossy pages.

Under the stewardship of HS2 Ltd, Broom Manor and many other properties, including several on the original HS2 routes north from Birmingham — to Leeds (cancelled in 2021) and to Crewe (mothballed in March) — have fallen into disrepair.

They will have to be refurbished to bring them up to a lettable standard or put back on the market and sold for less than the purchase price in their current state.

Either way, the taxpayer will lose out once again.

This is the largely unreported wider narrative behind the most expensive white elephant in our history, with the not-yet completed Euston to Birmingham section already exceeding £44 billion, more than the initial £32 billion budget for the entire HS2 venture, which would have topped £100 billion.

HS2 Ltd said all vacant properties in their portfolio ‘are maintained and kept secure’.

Not all of them are ‘well maintained’.

Cheshire, with some of the of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in Northern England, has been left with a legacy of empty and abandoned homes that have been left to rot.

What was the point of it all, many residents — casualties would be a more accurate description — are asking in the wake of the decision this week to finally axe HS2.

Whether you agree with the decision or not, few would dispute the devastating impact of what would have been Europe’s biggest infrastructure project — championed by then Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron — has had on the lives of ordinary people up and down the land.

Broom Manor boasts seven bedrooms, stables, adjoining cottages and garaging around an internal courtyard

Broom Manor boasts seven bedrooms, stables, adjoining cottages and garaging around an internal courtyard

Broom Manor, a property with a rich heritage, is a prime example.

The grey manor house, whose former residents include Shakespearean actress Helen Cherry, wife of Brief Encounter star Trevor Howard, is in a pitiful condition today.

The intercom and front gates are rusted and cobwebbed — an empty Costa Coffee cup impaled on one of the spikes symbolises the malaise — and weeds are sprouting through cracked flagstones near the huge double garages, where at the turn of the century, a close friend and partner of Rolls-Royce founder Henry Royce stored some of the firm’s luxury motors.

Inside is a horror story: rooms are riddled with damp and black mould, electrical sockets have been blown, in the corner of the kitchen tiles have collapsed, leaving a gaping hole in the floor, and plants have grown up through the skirting board.

The roof and guttering are also in need of urgent repair.

‘It was beautiful when we first moved in, it really was,’ said Debra Sweetman, who rented Broom Manor with her family for seven years after it was bought by HS2.

‘Like many older properties there were damp issues which gradually got worse,’ she says. ‘The agents employed by HS2 sent out men but the work was never really done properly.

‘At one point a burst water main in the street left the kitchen under 2ft of water. Teams of surveyors from the agents employed by HS2 came out, which must have cost hundreds of pounds a day, but the beams under the floor which had rotted were never replaced.’

The grey manor house, whose former residents include Shakespearean actress Helen Cherry, wife of Brief Encounter star Trevor Howard, is in a pitiful condition today

The grey manor house, whose former residents include Shakespearean actress Helen Cherry, wife of Brief Encounter star Trevor Howard, is in a pitiful condition today

The Sweetmans finally had enough. They moved out in April.

‘The place had become uninhabitable by then and HS2 were a nightmare to deal with,’ added Mrs Sweetman, who is runs a vehicle financing and leasing firm.

‘My husband went past the house the other week. ‘Oh my God,’ he said ‘It’s gone to rack and ruin’.’

Behind almost every ‘blighted’ property like Broom Manor — blighted being the official term used for homes adversely affected by HS2 — is a human story.

A businessman featured in this report suffered a stroke and a heart attack due the stress.

Another told how the rail link had cost him his marriage. Businesses and livelihoods have been lost. Communities decimated. Money frittered away, invariably in vain, on lawyers to challenge the corporate behemoth that was HS2.

All for nothing, it now turns out.

It’s a similar picture outside Cheshire, on the eastern and western spurs to Leeds and Crewe, where million-pound homes in one hamlet were turned into cannabis farms after being sold to HS2 Ltd.

Residents everywhere, north and south and east and west, spoke of the ruthless tactics employed by the men in suits from HS2.

Some, according to local councillors, were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) when they received offers on their homes to prevent anyone finding out the purchase price; pitting neighbour against neighbour, in other words.

How galling for families whatever the truth — HS2 deny using NDAs — to learn that, at the same time they were being squeezed, HS2 Ltd chief executive Mark Thurston, who stepped down last month, was earning £676,000 a year salary (including a £39,000 bonus in 2022-23) and 40 other executives were being paid over £150,000 a year.

In all, 424 properties on the planned route between Birmingham and Manchester were bought by HS2 Ltd and 530 properties on the planned route from Birmingham to Leeds. About nine in ten of the 954 properties were homes and the rest were businesses.

Total spend: nearly £600 million.

Some properties were subject to compulsory purchase orders.

Those whose homes were not in the direct path of the rail link but in close proximity could apply to sell under a discretionary ‘exceptional hardship scheme’, later renamed ‘need to sell’. This was as long as they could show a ‘compelling reason’ to sell but were unable to do so on the open market, other than at a very reduced price due to being ‘blighted’ by HS2.

How many homes do HS2 now own in Cheshire? At least 67, according to a list released under Freedom of Information laws in 2019.

Pedestrians walk past HS2 adverts on hoardings as work continues at the Euston Station construction site

Pedestrians walk past HS2 adverts on hoardings as work continues at the Euston Station construction site

Among them is Stanthorne Grange, an historic white-gated mansion house near Middlewich — a few miles down the road from Broom Manor — where, it is rumoured, a local woman who provided the inspiration for Miss Havisham, one of the central characters in Charles Dickens’ Great expectations, once lived.

It was acquired by HS2 Ltd for £637,500 in 2015 but had been on the market for £775,000. ‘They had us over a barrel,’ Barry Williams, who lived here with his wife Diane, told the local paper back then.

We were unable to contact Mr Williams but surely he would be heartbroken to see the state of his once lovely home, which has been derelict for the past eight years.

Beyond the padlocked, rusting gates the once beautiful grounds have been reduced to a wilderness of weeds and the driveway is littered with bottles, cans and other rubbish. Moss has spread over the red slate roof and brambles and stinging nettles are running wild over the perimeter walls. Hardly ‘well maintained’.

The first Chris Hill, owner of one of the UK’s largest event florists, knew about HS2 was when a flyer was posted through his letterbox in late 2016, informing him that the rail link would pass right through his idyllic three-bedroom home in the village of Ashley, near Altrincham in Cheshire.

‘It was nasty shock,’ he said.

Three local estate agents valued their house at £710,000 but HS2 Ltd offered just £600,000. The much lower valuation was based on properties of a similar size but situated near the women’s prison at Styal, which also happens to be in the shadow of busy Manchester Airport.

And there followed 12 months of negotiations during which Mr Hill, 59, suffered a life-changing stroke brought on, he suspects, by the predicament he and his wife Anna-Liisa found themselves in.

HS2 Ltd grudgingly upped the offer to £675,000. ‘We were still not happy,’ explained Mr Hill, ‘so we said we would go to arbitration. They said that if we did, they would go to arbitration with a much lower offer.

‘It was pretty much strong-arm tactics. We decided to write the £35,000 off and get on with the rest of our lives.’

Three months after the couple moved to their new home in Macclesfield, Mr Hill had a heart attack.

Their old home in Cheshire, Thorns Green Cottage, has been empty since they sold it in 2018.

Rotting piles of dead timber are stacked up down the side of the house. The outhouse is falling to bits. The garden wall has collapsed and the fence separating the property from the equally derelict neighbouring property is leaning at a 45-degree angle.

The HS2 construction site at Curzon Street in Birmingham city centre, on October 3, 2023

The HS2 construction site at Curzon Street in Birmingham city centre, on October 3, 2023

‘It was our forever home,’ Mr Hill added. ‘I could imagine us being there now if this had not happened and we would still like to buy it back.’

Security company signs, warning of remote TV security monitoring, are visible on many empty HS2 houses here.

In Hasty Lane, a leafy cul-de-sac in Hale Barns, what was once an impressive detached house called Laurel Cottage (bought by HS2 for £742,500 in 2014) can barely be seen from the pavement through the forest of undergrowth. Part of the garden wall has collapsed.

In Lymm, a quintessentially English village seven miles from Altrincham, a huge old farmhouse (bought for £1,065,000 in the same year) overlooking the canal is almost completely shrouded in weeds and now resembles a sinister castle from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. One of the crumbling walls is clearly visible, though.

Nearly £2 million of taxpayers’ money on two properties producing no rental income, for the moment anyway, and little prospect of doing so, it seems in the future.

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario.

Answering the door of his terraced house in another part of Lymm this week was Trevor Palin.

Mr Palin, a commercial photographer, used to live in a beautiful four-bedroom cottage back in Knutsford with his wife, their two children and their dog.

Then he discovered the HS2 rail route would be coming directly through their kitchen which, he said, was the start of seven years of hell.

Eventually, after a High Court battle, they got £450,000 for their home, £35,000 less than it was initially put on the market for.

The couple’s plight was featured in the Manchester Evening News four years ago. There is a sad postscript to their ordeal, we discovered.

‘I don’t want to talk about what happened,’ Mr Palin said when contacted at his new address. ‘It was terrible.

‘Me and my wife of 30 years broke up over this. ‘I had to go through counselling and all kinds of c***.’

Needless to say their former home in Knutsford — Barrhill — is a mess. The TV aerial has fallen off the roof and sits in the front garden. All the wooden window frames and garden gates have rotted and the ceiling in the front room has collapsed, covering the floor with fallen plaster.

So to the Shimmer estate in Mexborough, near Doncaster, where 530 blighted properties on the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds were bought after the route was made public in 2016.

Nowhere has HS2 left a more toxic legacy.

Residents, according to councillor Sean Gibbons — who along with his colleagues from the Mexborough First party has fought tirelessly for his constituents — were told not to discuss individual offers they received for their homes.

‘People had breakdowns, they ended up on medication.’ he said.

He pointed to two identical properties, next door to each other. One was purchased by HS2 Ltd for £153,000 on June 9, 2017. The other was purchased by HS2 Ltd for £173,000 on May 18, 2018 — a price difference of £20,000 in less than a year.

‘Every home, business and piece of land is unique, and we accept that there are sometimes different opinions between owners, their professional advisers and HS2 about the value of a property,’ HS2 Ltd said in a statement.

‘In all cases we are seeking a fair deal for claimants and the taxpayer.’

The company said ’79 per cent of lettable residential and agricultural properties are currently let and the others are either being refurbished, on the market, held for construction or are not financially viable to bring up to lettable standard.’

A number of those vacant properties — 19 to be precise — are located in Whitmore Heath in Staffordshire, once called the ‘Beverly Hills of Stoke-on-Trent’.

One of them, on Snape Hall Road, a desirable former millionaire’s row, was turned into a cannabis farm after being sold to HS2 Ltd for £1,262,500 in July 2020.

Contractors in hazmat suits and masks were fumigating the property from an infestation of dangerous mould when the Mail visited this week.

Skips were filled with bags and earth used to grow the drug. More than 180 ‘mature plants’ across five rooms were seized by the police when they raided the property last year.

Cannabis farms were also discovered in two other HS2-owned luxury homes in Whitmore Heath in 2019.

One can only hazard a guess what state these properties are in or what is to become of them. But of one thing we can be certain — the taxpayer, as always, will pick up the tab.

Additional reporting: Mark Branagan and Tim Stewart



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