A ‘complete mess’: fury in north London over HS2’s ‘big hole in the ground’

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  • March 25, 2023
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Six years after turning the first spade at Euston station, it’s hard for local people to see HS2 as anything other than levelling down.

Hundreds of homes have been demolished. A school, a pub and other businesses have been knocked down or starved of customers. Families have been separated. Now the project has been put on hold and the builders are moving out, leaving a mile-long hole.

Last week, residents of the Camden districts whose lives have been blighted by the construction had their first chance since the announcement to ask HS2 Ltd what happens now.

“They don’t know anything,” said Dorothea Hackman, chair of Camden Civic Society, after a lengthy meeting between residents and HS2 officials last Thursday. “All work has now stopped. It’s a complete mess.”

“There’s a big hole in the ground,” said Danny Beales, Camden council’s cabinet member for housing. “There’s a delay, and uncertainty about if and when works will complete. Can we open up roads? Can we reclaim green space? We need to regenerate the area. It doesn’t seem like there’s much certainty about that, or money.”

Suspended line

Since the announcement by transport secretary Mark Harper on 9 March that HS2 would be delayed by two years due to rising costs, hundreds of workers at Euston have been redeployed or face redundancy. Their custom had kept many businesses near the station afloat after six years of disruption, noise and dust, Beales said, describing the situation as a way to “degenerate” the area.

Harper said the £109bn high speed line linking Birmingham to London would end at Old Oak Common, a sprawling depot in west London with neither oaks nor common land that is being turned into a station. It would not be linked to Euston until 2041.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said this was “not a viable option” and that the new Elizabeth Line would need more trains to cope with demand, while Andy Lord, Transport for London commissioner, is understood to have raised the issue with the government.

For Stephen Newman, the damage is already done. The former welder and teacher lived in the Regent’s Park estate for 21 years, the last four of which he was next door to the 60-acre construction site. “I’m disabled and it’s difficult to walk,” he said. “Along comes this nightmare where we’re surrounded by work, the noise, the dust, the barriers.

“It’s hard for me to go out and when I did I’d find the bus stops had gone. It just got worse and worse.”

The vast HS2 construction site in August 2022. Photograph: HS2

After council officers discovered his flat had a thick crack in the walls and ceiling, which Newman blamed on HS2’s pounding piledrivers, the 69-year-old was offered the chance to move, to the north of the borough. He left the noise behind, but also most of the people who cared about him.

“I’ve lost my support network – my stepdaughter and my granddaughters and my mates who lived in the next block along. The shopkeeper who wouldn’t care if I’d forgotten to bring my wallet out.” Complicated bus routes make it much harder for them to visit him, so he sees them less.

Experiences such as Newman’s were on the lips of residents at the Euston Community Representatives Group last Thursday. The meeting, in a hotel basement room, was the only place to hear representatives of HS2 in person, but members of the public, including the press, were excluded.

When the Observer arrived, officials told us to leave, claiming that people would not feel able to speak freely with members of the press present. Residents spoke freely enough once the meeting was over though. They were “incandescent”, Dorothea Hackman said. “The local community has been putting up with this and campaigning for many years, and we’re very tired. Worn down by trying to mitigate the worst effects.”

HS2 construction at Euston station. Many building workers have been moved on or face redundancy. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

They were told that nearly all the work had stopped, except for an electricity substation for London Underground, works on Euston Road and an “interim” taxi rank, and some temporary offices on the former site of the Maria Fidelis school.

“There was lots of talk about ‘meanwhile use’,” said Slaney Devlin, chair of the Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum. “It seems like they’re going to allow the community into the space and do something useful with it.”

These decisions are “really important”, she added. “The uncertainty plays on your mind. When people say 2041, everybody thinks ‘we’ll probably be dead – that’s the rest of my life’.

“There’s an opportunity to think, are we going in the right direction? My fear is the government will just exploit the area to make as much money as possible to fill this unbelievably large hole in the coffers. There’s an opportunity to heal this area.”

Hackman compared HS2 to another failed infrastructure project from the 1960s: the Motorway Box, a solution to fears of traffic gridlock by building four motorways through inner London.

That would have meant demolishing up to 100,000 homes, including Camden Town, Brixton and Dalston, and leaving a million Londoners as neighbours of motorways. Only roads into the Blackwall Tunnel, the Westway, and part of the North Circular Road were ever built.

“They successfully opposed it in the 70s, but they just stopped doing it,” Hackman said. “For HS2, I don’t think there will ever be a moment of great victory and cancellation. This was it.”

A spokesperson for HS2 Ltd said the government had asked it to “rephase construction of the HS2 Euston station as we develop the scheme further. It is one of the most complex parts of the HS2 route to build,” they added, saying they wanted to build an “affordable station that is right for the local community and passengers”.

“We understand this news may be of concern to members of the community. We greatly value the continued dialogue we have with them via the Euston Community Representative Group both to hear from them and for us to be able to update them on upcoming project developments.”