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London's New High-Speed Rail Line Is Going to Screw Over the Poor

Primrose Hill residents didn't want it near their homes, so it's been re-routed through the estates.
June 11, 2013, 9:30am

The Regents Park Estate in Camden, which stands to be destroyed to make way for HS2.

HS2 is the £34 billion high-speed rail route that's intending to bring the north closer to the south. It was initially proposed that HS2 would run through Primrose Hill. But being Primrose Hill – an area that got up in arms when the council proposed putting, God forbid, wheelie bins outside houses – its monied residents got together and hired lawyers, and now it's the settled, stable – but far less affluent – areas of north London that will see their communities carved up.

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Drummond Street – Camden’s equivalent of Brick Lane; a wall to wall road of Indian restaurants and supermarkets – will be cut in two, children’s play areas will be concreted over, a school knocked down and thousands of human remains will be dug up at St James’s Gardens.

Joynal Uddin.

HS2 isn't slow in delivering other disappointments. I don’t know if you’ve had the misfortune of going to Euston station recently, but it’s a tired, concrete hellhole that looks like a forgotten outpost of the Kremlin in the 1950s. Camden and Network Rail had plans to regenerate the area to build houses and create jobs, but the entrance of HS2 into the equation has forced those plans to be redrawn. Euston station will also be denied the full facelift it was due, as it's now considered too expensive. “That was the only benefit for Camden of HS2 – that was the one perk and they scaled it back,” said Maryam Eslamdoust, Labour councillor for Kilburn. Instead, the route will extend to the west of Euston, which involves bulldozing a large development of social housing called the Regent's Park Estate. Given the fact Regent's Park itself is surrounded by nothing but upmarket areas, the estate may sound blue-blooded and grand, but it's actually hugely deprived, with many people on very low incomes. Built in the 1950s in an area destroyed by the Blitz, it took two years to construct and was designed and built to last. No commitment has yet been given to locally rehouse any of the 200-plus families who may lose their homes in 2015 if HS2 goes ahead – instead, they may be shunted across or even out of London, miles from the places they've rooted their lives in.

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In the past, the estate was among the worst in London for gang fighting and violence. Since 1992, however, much time and money have been invested in successfully building a strong sense of community. Joynal Uddin has been a resident since 1986. His flat is in a block that will be demolished: “It’s taken me more than 35 years to build my life here. If I move to somewhere else, I don’t have another 35 years to build a community. I don’t know where I'll be and what I'll be doing.”

Mr Bass, a 90-year-old resident of the Regents Park Estate. On the Regent's Park Estate, 20 percent of the residents are over 65 – some are in their 90s. These elderly people told me they had plans to live and die on the same plot, in front of the same telly, where they have lived all their lives – where they have friends, memories, routines and security. Mr Bass, 90, told me, "I don't want it. I don't want to have to move – I've got relatives here."

George, 92, says, “If I have to move out of here, who will look after me? Who is going to help me to pack my home up?” Some people say they hope they die before it happens. For Regent's Park Estate residents, this isn’t about high-speed trains or the north-south divide or taking 20 minutes off the London to Birmingham route. This is about land grabbing; pushing poorer people off their patch and out of London. And, as is often the case when the poor are suffering, the rich get richer. “They will make billions of pounds on this land,” says Joynal. And there’s more: The Alexandra Road Estate, more commonly referred to as Rowley Way, is also in the firing line. The 350-metre-long crescent-shaped estate is Grade II listed (you might recognise it from the R and L Thompson (of Fairport Convention) Sunnyvista LP cover). It was designed in 1968 by Neave Brown as an alternative to the high-rise blocks that most local authorities were building. Back then, the concrete was white and gleaming. Now, although greyer, the huge windows look out over a quiet oasis of greenery and mature trees, and every home has its own private external space.

Opinions on Rowley Way vary. Comments range from, “One of my neighbours said it’s like Alcatraz,” and, “It’s an enormous concrete crocodile,” to, “It’s London's equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” Whatever the view, it’s more than a housing scheme. It is, in Brown’s words, “A piece of city,” comprising shops, a community centre, a four-acre park, a special needs school, a children’s centre and a care home for handicapped adults, as well as more than 500 homes.

The HS2 plans include the building of a new, ugly ventilation shaft that will require the demolition of a number of flats. At the very least, one of the estate's walkways will be lost.

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“It’s extremely frustrating for Rowley Way residents to hear the government projecting the view that it’s just Primrose Hill and Home Counties people who are affected. That’s just not the case,” says Maryam. “Inner city people are being screwed by this. It's impacting on the most deprived people.”

Frank Dobson, Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras, says he isn’t necessarily against a high-speed rail network (alternative routes via Stratford or Waterloo have been ruled out), but he does think that bringing it into Euston is a mad idea and a waste of money. In his view, investing in housing to encourage growth should have priority.

“The unfairness has been the media coverage – it’s all been about threats to golf courses in the Chilterns, and very little attention has been paid to the threat to the homes and the people around Euston, where the majority of the places that will be demolished are occupied by Camden council tenants. They should be guaranteed rehousing in the area.”

This is now a tale of two cities. The NIMBYs in Primrose Hill have made it very clear that they have absolutely no intention of allowing an aggressively fast train to smash up their pleasure dome, thank you very much. And to cherry pick from Dickens, the worst of times is about to descend on those who lack the kind of ready dosh available to the posh of Primrose Hill.

Follow Tess (@tessreidy) and Tom (@tomjohnsonuk) on Twitter, and see more of Tom's work here.

More times councils have fucked over London:

Why Closing South Bank Skate Park Would Suck for London

Lambeth Council Is Kicking People Out of Their Homes