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Can we have our home back? HS2 U-turn leaves uprooted family reeling

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When Tara Wellard bought her three-bedroom house on Mexborough’s Shimmer estate in 2012, it was a dream come true. As a single parent of two small girls, she finally had a brand new home she could make her own in the South Yorkshire town.

But in summer 2016 the dream became a nightmare when she received a letter saying that her home needed to be demolished to make way for high-speed rail. She sold up to HS2 after trying to remortgage and being told it was valued at zero on the open market, and moved into a smaller, more expensive property in 2018. She still feels sad every time she passes what she thought would be her forever home.

On Thursday she was reeling from the news that the government had changed its mind. HS2 is not now going to reach Yorkshire and will stop 50 miles south of Mexborough, at East Midlands Parkway. She had uprooted her daughters’ lives for nothing and had a simple question: “Do you think they will let me have my home back?”

View image in fullscreenTara Wellard. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Any optimism was soon dispelled via an email sent to local councillors from HS2’s engagement manager, Michael Haughton. Dispatched shortly after Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, delivered the integrated rail plan to a jeering parliament, it said: “Safeguarding remains in place along the full route, as does access to the range of HS2 property schemes. At this time, we do not expect any changes to safeguarding, or to eligibility for these schemes, unless and until different plans are confirmed.”

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In other words, the Shimmer estate remains blighted. No one will be able to get a mortgage if they want to move in. The three local councillors from the independent Mexborough First party were furious. “Tossers,” said Bev Chapman, in one of their more printable comments.

The saga of the Shimmer estate is one of the more farcical chapters of the HS2 story. When the route of the eastern spur was made public in 2016, it emerged that the designers had worked off old maps which were made before 2011, when construction on Shimmer’s 212 houses began. “The engineers told us they had no idea the houses were here,” said councillor Andrew Pickering. All the designers could see was an electricity substation they planned to relocate so they could plonk an 18-metre-high viaduct on top.

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View image in fullscreenBev Chapman. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Shimmer was supposed to be one of the most aspirational estates in Doncaster. No one seems to know why it got its unusual name, but Chapman hypothesises that it may be a reference to the way the sun catches the light of the neighbouring River Don.

Many of the homes were snapped up off-plan, with owners picking out their own kitchens and bathrooms, and adding their own luxuries such as underfloor heating and external uplighters. “Some of them were like palaces,” remembers Chapman.

In July 2016 residents received hand-delivered letters at 6am one morning informing them that the government would need to acquire “some or all” of their land if new proposals for the South Yorkshire route were approved.

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View image in fullscreenUnfinished building work next to the children’s playground on the Shimmer estate. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

So began a process which saw almost all owners sell up to HS2. Many of them say they were required to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them telling their neighbours the sale price, according to local councillors. “It was a disgraceful state of affairs,” said Pickering. Amid the enforced secrecy, there was outrage in 2017 when the surveyors, Carter Jonas, left confidential home valuations on a train.

These days, the estate is still not finished. A half-completed playground remains fenced off and the road and kerbs are in poor condition. Almost all of the occupied homes are now rented out by HS2, with rents significantly under the market rate – one couple said they paid just £600 a month to rent their three-storey townhouse, very like the dream home Wellard was forced to sell.

“We only know of two of the original owners who stayed put,” said councillor Sean Gibbons. “People have suffered massively through the stress of this. There’s people who’ve had breakdowns, they’re on medication, and then they turn on the TV and see MPs laughing and shouting about all of this in the House of Commons. It’s a disgrace.”