All stations to regeneration? Work on HS2 begins in earnest | Business

The wealthy inhabitants of 18th-century Piccadilly dug deep when choosing a resting place in the new, overflow St James burial ground in Camden: the less likely to be disturbed by later arrivals to London’s packed cemeteries. But even a stone casket eight metres down only buys you so much peace when a £56bn train line comes knocking.

The first big dig on HS2’s route out of Euston is bringing up the bones of some 40,000 people, and these are the lucky ones. Records suggest 61,000 bodies were interred, but about a third were removed to expand the rail terminus in the 19th century – and without, current archaeologists maintain, the care they are now taking to keep each skeleton apart.

Closed in 1853 over fears of cholera, the cemetery eventually became a park – St James Gardens – shaded until last year with dozens of London plane trees. Today, it is bare earth, dug down in steps, under a huge rig of canvas and scaffolding, platforms and lighting, covering the site from rain and public view. About 200 people – electricians, scaffolders, drone operators, digger drivers, as well as archaeologists – are working to identify and remove the skeletal remains, many of which lie intact in elm coffins preserved by the wet clay. A collective monument awaits them in another London burial ground, currently the subject of negotaiations betyween HS2 and the Church of England.

Around St James, buildings are coming down: part of a £300m contract for HS2 preparatory works, the bulk of which is being spent within yards of Euston. Cranes hover over two office blocks, reaching up to 16 storeys at the front of the station, ready for demolition. HS2’s contractors are anxious to demonstrate their considerate credentials – harvesting rainwater to lessen dust, using hybrid diesel-electric excavators and making (unsuccessful) attempts to find a home for the beds and soft furnishings before taking apart the Thistle hotel.

HS2 has few friends in an area where, right now, one park has gone and another split in half for a taxi rank; a popular pub has been boarded up; a primary school is surrounded by works and must relocate; and more homes have been seized than over the rest of the entire route put together. Blocks on the Regent’s Park estate have been emptied for demolition, and a decade of disruption lies ahead for residents around Euston.

Archaeologists at work under the canopy at St James Gardens.

Archaeologists at work under the canopy at St James Gardens. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Confidence in HS2 more broadly has been at a low ebb. News last week that fewer, and slower, trains than planned could eventually run on the new network to keep costs in check have underscored concerns about escalating budgets. Recently, a former HS2 director told the BBC’s Panorama programme that the company had massively understated the price of property and compensation along the route; while the resignation in December of Sir Terry Morgan as chair of HS2 Ltd came after the woes of Crossrail – also chaired by Morgan until late last year – dented faith in vows to deliver infrastructure projects on time and on budget.

The first phase of HS2, from London to Birmingham, is scheduled to open in December 2026, with the second phase – from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds – due for 2033.

Officially, HS2 maintains it is on target for 2033, despite a delay to phase two’s parliamentary timetable. The former chairman Sir David Higgins warned in 2014 that the “key variable” pushing up costs would be a legislative wait, hoping a bill to build the Manchester and Leeds forks could reach the Commons in 2017. Now, the aspiration is for 2020, with royal assent not expected until 2023. Meanwhile, an environmental consultation for the northern route has provoked more condemnation: in December the Wildlife Trust condemned work to mitigate destruction of natural habitats as “derisory”.

Little wonder the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, warned the rail industry that HS2’s northern reaches still needed to be fought for. But at the end of this pain, the government believes, the high-speed network will deliver a massive economic boost and regeneration for the cities it connects – an argument most clearly endorsed in Manchester and Yorkshire.

The experience of businesses and towns on Britain’s only existing high-speed route would appear to bear this out. In Ashford, Kent, after a decade of domestic high-speed services, the council sees the fast rail connection as a clear competitive edge that has drawn in a host of new businesses and investment and seen the town’s population grow rapidly. Trains to London used to take 82 minutes but now take just 38 – a fact celebrated in the name of the largest new office building in the region, Connect 38, situated moments from the station.

Business leaders are clear about the impact of HS1 and Southeastern’s fast trains. Chapel Down, the wine producer, is building its £1.3m Curious Brewery in Ashford, directly adjacent to the high-speed rail station – as well as an eponymous bar near the London terminus to showcase its drinks, which now include gin and vodka. The chief executive, Frazer Thompson, says: “We could have been in Maidstone or Tunbridge Wells – they’ve got good connectivity – but we chose Ashford for the rail link. It’s a no-brainer. We’re London-centric – we can do a couple of meetings in the morning and be back here for the afternoon.”

Euston station 2019
Euston station 2026

Thompson says the proximity has helped attract staff from the capital. Rob Reynolds, managing partner of accountancy firm Wilkins Kennedy, which has an office in Ashford, agrees: “It’s always been a good place to do business – but now people want to stick here.”

According to Visit Kent, the high-speed link is a crucial factor for one in five visitors, thus supporting more than 5,000 jobs in the county’s tourist economy alone. A relocation agency helping businesses move to the area, Locate in Kent, says the half-hour journey to Stratford – which has a stop on the HS1 route – is even more critical for attracting tech firms that have been priced out of east London but want to stay close to the growing hub around the former Olympic park.

For some critics, the regeneration opportunities are is a red herring. Lord Berkeley, a rail expert who has presented independent costings of the route from Euston that suggest HS2’s budget will more than double to £100bn-plus, says: “Regeneration is essential: but it can be achieved in a far wider spread of cities at far less cost than that required for HS2, and in a much shorter delivery period.”

If the Treasury’s cost-benefit forecast for HS2 has always been unconvincing, supporters prefer to highlight the dramatic transformation wrought around the high-speed stations – in London too, where King’s Cross St Pancras thrives with housing, shops and restaurants. Dyan Crowther, chief executive of HS1, was manager of King’s Cross station before regeneration. She says: “I used to walk around the back with a [signalling] lamp hoiking prostitutes out of the station. I used to send my cleaners out in pairs. You certainly wouldn’t go to the cashpoint.

“You can sit here all day and write business cases, but if you don’t do something, nothing will happen. This is not about moving metal from A to B; it’s about changing people’s lives.”

Could Euston’s painful reshaping end up a similarly positive story? Camden borough council hopes yes – but cautions that hurdles remain. Danny Beales, cabinet member for investing in communities at Camden council, says: “We’ve been pushing hard to mitigate the effects of decades of HS2 construction disruption on Camden’s communities and continue to do so – we’ve recently finished building around 100 council homes to replace those being demolished – but more action is needed.”

He holds out hope for a comprehensive redevelopment: affordable housing and public spaces, and routes to connect neighbourhoods long separated by the station. Negotiations continue with HS2 and government, Beales says: “We’re clear that not achieving this vision would be a huge opportunity lost, and a bad outcome for Camden residents.”

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