Picture-Postcard Villagers in Tory Heartland Powerless Over HS2

Turweston is the kind of village that Americans believe is everywhere in England and that English people refuse to believe exists outside the movies.

It has a medieval church, a manor house and a pub. As you walk through its lanes in November, the smell of coal fires is in the air, and there are more horses to be seen than cars. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, in which England’s Norman conquerors assessed the value of their new kingdom. Nine centuries later, World War II bomber pilots trained at its airfield. Today, it faces a new threat: a high-speed rail line.

“We moved here eight years ago for peace and quiet,” said Brian Collins, 74, a retired lawyer, before laughing briefly. He pointed out the route the line will take in a cutting on the edge of the village, destroying two houses. He said he fears years of disruption from building work, followed by noisy trains traveling at 225 miles an hour. “We’re powerless to stop it. There’s enormous unrest in the village.”

Turweston -- halfway up a narrow corridor of protest along the London-Birmingham route -- is part of the natural heartland of David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Yet with little chance of unseating their local lawmakers, these voters have no way of making the prime minister change his mind about pushing through a 50-billion-pound ($80 billion) project aimed at bringing Britain’s aging transport infrastructure into the 21st century.

Capacity Boost

Government ministers argue that HS2, as the planned 335-mile (540-kilometer) line is known, will boost the economy by increasing rail capacity and shortening journey times to the Midlands and north. It would be the first new main line north of London since the 19th century. Critics say it’s a waste of money that will blight beautiful parts of the countryside, and the money could be better spent on upgrading existing tracks.

“It would be better if we were getting a station, then at least we’d get some benefit,” said Phil Caley, landlord of the Stratton Arms pub. Drinkers were universally hostile to the line, while resigned to its inevitability.

Sitting at the bar, Michael Durant described how the developers agreed to buy his house after he couldn’t sell it because of HS2.

“They moved the route to within 400 yards of us, and the estate agent said the house was worthless,” he said. It took two years to agree the deal. “It’s quite stressful when someone says your house is worth zero,” he said.

Balls Doubts

Some cite as a cause for optimism comments earlier this year from the opposition Labour Party’s Treasury spokesman, Ed Balls, that he has doubts about the project. Still, Balls has moved away from those remarks recently, and Labour remains officially supportive of the plan, which it instigated when in government before 2010.

The government says the line, on which construction is due to begin in 2017, will be the biggest building project in Europe, creating 50,000 jobs. An analysis for HS2 Ltd., the company in charge of the project, suggested it could boost the economy of major cities on the route -- Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds -- by as much as 4.2 percent of gross domestic product.

The people of Turweston, about 75 miles northwest of London by road, have no option to express their frustration through the ballot box at the next election in 2015.

Their member of Parliament, for the Buckingham district, is the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who stays neutral on political matters. By convention, the big political parties don’t run candidates against the speaker in elections. Bercow is a former Tory lawmaker who took 57 percent of the vote the last time he ran as a Conservative in 2005, against 20 percent for the second-placed Labour candidate.

Next Door

Even if Turweston were over the nearby electoral boundary in Northamptonshire South, the protesters would still face a political problem. Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative member of Parliament there, took more than 2 1/2 times as many votes in 2010 as her closest rival from the Liberal Democrats. She got more than three times as many votes as Labour’s candidate, who came third.

Those numbers mean it’s just not credible for many of the people affected by HS2 to threaten to vote their lawmakers out of office, unlike the voters in swing seats in west London who have successfully objected to the expansion of Heathrow airport. Cameron bowed to their views when he opted out of making any decision on airport capacity in the southeast until after the 2015 vote.

Damage Limitation

Hazel Morrison, a local council member who has lived in Turweston for 40 years, said her main focus was now on mitigating the damage done by the line and securing compensation, rather than trying to stop it altogether.

“Many members of Parliament have got so many other things that are important to them, this is something that’s quite low down on their list of priorities,” she said over coffee in her kitchen. “The government say HS2 will cost each household in the country 3,000 pounds, but it’s not going to cost us 3,000 pounds. It’s going to cost 30 percent off our house values, which for most of us is a considerable asset.”

Opponents of HS2 made a final bid to halt the project at the Supreme Court on environmental grounds last month. The court has yet to rule. The House of Commons, though, voted by 350 to 34 two weeks ago to press ahead with a bill paving the way for the project.

Morrison is part of a network of campaigners along the route, sharing information online. “All the way up the line, small communities face these problems,” she said.

“Some people don’t like to talk about it, but whenever we get together, it seems to come into the conversation,” she said. It wasn’t how anyone planned to spend their retirement. Still, she can find one positive aspect for Turweston. “It’s brought us together. It hasn’t divided the village.”

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