One Day in Oxford

We recently helped Mr Moore in negotiating and settling a compensation claim, after being told his property would be subject to a compulsory purchase order due to the proposed HS2 route. It had been a long and stressful time for Mr Moore, and we are delighted that we were able to assist him. Mr Moore has very kindly provided his own words about the struggles he experienced with HS2, and how we achieved a positive outcome on that one day in Oxford!

“Life changing moments can come in many guises, sometimes their significance may only be revealed after the passage of time. So it was with my big moment. It all started with a cryptic text from my good friend Richard. “Sell Sell”, the message read. It sounded ominous and so it was to prove. In time curiosity got the better of me. I called Richard to enquire on the meaning of his text. “Haven’t you heard?”, he enquired. I hadn’t.

The latest evening news had covered a breaking story that a new rail link was being proposed, running the length of London to Edinburgh. The first stage, London to Birmingham, had already been mapped out with the bad news being, according to Richard, it was going to pass close to my home. At that time, I owned a smallholding, twenty acres with a nice farmhouse that once had been the home of Sir Oswald Moseley and designed by Charles Voysey. I only state this not because it was a grand house, it wasn’t by Voysey standards, but it was the kind of home that most people would love to live in. After I put the phone down, I started to wonder as to the truth of Richard’s revelations. He wasn’t the kind to pull a fast one, but somehow it didn’t ring true. Modern governments can never keep big controversial projects like this under wraps. I pondered for a while, then I ‘googled.’

Emblazoned on the screen under BBC News banner was the heading, HS2 PROPOSED NEW RAIL LINK. Conveniently a link to the proposed route map was provided. I hurriedly clicked. Then the bombshell was dropped. The proposed route did not pass near to my farm, rather it cut a path directly through it, dissecting my little part of England from corner to corner. As the weeks and months passed by I went through the full gambit of emotions. Disbelief, anger, self- pity, all jangling on my nervous system threatening me with a possible mental breakdown. To ward off this possibility I figured now was the time to imitate the actions of a tiger, time to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.

In the beginning there was little help available, save if you rang the HS2 helpline it was answered straight away. That would later change. The advice from the help desk was scant and of little value. I needed to get out there and inform myself how one should react in such circumstances. In November 2010, Buckinghamshire Rural Affairs Group had organised a conference to advise residents along the proposed HS2 route. It was held in Milton Keynes. Three speakers were booked to attend, from memory one was a businesswoman, one from the HS2 board, but the one I definitely remember was a gentleman involved in the pre-cursor link, HS1. The format was an open chaired debate, so a flyer was circulated beforehand requesting possible questions. I composed one and sent it off. I wanted it to have impact and reflect my concern, so this is what I wrote.

“I own a small farm of 25 acres and dwelling. The HS2 proposed route passes straight through my land, and within 50 metres of my front door. Since 1982 the farm has been my only source of income. I have a wife, seven dependent children and a mortgage to pay. My future has been destroyed. To whom can I turn for help, no one so far wishes to listen. The farm boasts a very large ash tree with many substantial branches, should I buy a rope?”

The chairman introduced my question with the surprising fact that it was the only question received out of an audience of several hundred. Needless to say the question had impact but nothing in the way of direct support or help from the Government or the HS2 delegate. Busy people in positions of power have little time or empathy with those who suffer the consequences of their actions. They see themselves as creators of wealth and prosperity which overrides the need for concern with any collateral damage they might cause. Help, however, came from the HS1 delegate. He after all was someone who had walked in my shoes and someone who had come out the other side with his sanity still intact. He also had that most valuable of assets, the wisdom of experience. In a nutshell he said this. No action group, no matter how large, no matter how well intentioned or how well connected will ever stop a government proposal. This was not to say the rail link would definitely happen, but if it were to be dropped this would come from within the corridors of power not without. He advised rather to pursue two courses of action, compensation and/or mitigation.

There followed an interlude in proceedings during which time I was surrounded by members of the audience, all sympathetic to my case and urging me to join the STOP HS2 movement. The words of Mr HS1 had obviously fallen on deaf ears, but not with me, his advice made complete sense. That night I resolved to become pro-active and start my own action group, albeit of just one member. As I was sentenced to losing my whole farm mitigation was a non- starter, compensation therefore became my raison d’être.

Once the proposed route was announced, a series of firms made approaches all offering their services. I think I interviewed five candidates in total. Governments in compulsory purchase cases require claimants to employ a firm of chartered surveyors to represent their best interests. None of my first cohort proved suitable so I tried a Google search. It was then I hit on the Thomson Broadbent site. I was impressed by the fact that they specialised in compensation claims over a range of scenarios and decided to contact them. Chris Robinson answered my request and duly visited me at my farm. We chatted over the proposed route, the extent of my claim and suggestions of how his firm might help. Thankfully, Chris differed from all the rest, he didn’t appear to be reading from a script and had clear knowledge of how a claim needed to be managed. He also confirmed that it would be he who conducted my claim, not some office junior.

Shortly after meeting Chris we arranged a meeting with the agent acting for HS2. The government had introduced a scheme whereby residents along the proposed route could enter into an agreement with The Department of Transport, allowing them to negotiate and sell their property in advance of a compulsory purchase order. I was keen to take up this offer, having already decided that the actions of the tiger were preferable to the actions of the ostrich. From my point of view the meeting went well, in particular with regard to one important point. A portion of my land had potential for housing development. At all my previous interviews prospective agents had advised that I could not claim for any uplift in the land value. They referred to it as hope value and as such could not be considered as a legitimate part of any claim. Chris and the HS2 agent took a different view and advised me to research Section 17 of the Land Compensation Act. I needed no further encouragement; I was back on Google again.

It was there I found a very helpful idiots guide to making a claim under this important section. In the first instance one had to approach their local Council’s planning department and request a Certificate of Appropriate Alternative Development. It all seemed fairly straight forward and it could well have been had it not met the barriers of a somewhat incompetent local council. I employed a planning consultant who soon got to grips with the format required and we produced plans for ten detached houses on the plot of land involved. The site was on land that had been safeguarded due to the HS2 proposals so that meant that any other development could not take place. The purpose of Section 17 was to allow an application on safeguarded land for alternative development to run its course, to see if it could be considered appropriate in the circumstances. Not a difficult concept to grasp, one would think? Unluckily for me it proved to be beyond the comprehension of the planning officers and elected Councillors. My application was summarily booted out at committee with the chair lady declaring there was nothing to debate. The main thrust of her argument was that as the land had already been safeguarded the application should never have seen the light of day. A couple of Councillors did speak but merely to describe my application as silly and to question my sanity.

I have to admit on the day of the hearing I left the building with my tail between my legs, this was not what I had expected. Such was the ferocity and decisiveness of their actions I did question my sanity. Had I got it all wrong? Was I just clutching at straws? It took me a few days to recover.

I read again the idiots guide and such was the straight forwardness of the advice that I resolved to fight on. I researched planning barristers and come up with No. 5 Chambers in Birmingham. They were having a run of successful appeals against my local planning authority, so they seemed a good place to start. Fortunately planning barristers can be instructed by a member of the public directly, no need to go through a solicitor. My email to them laying out the salient points of my case got an immediate reply. They sent me a quote for a barrister’s opinion. By this time, I had exhausted what little funds I had so I had to make a bold decision. The chancellor at that time allowed investors to raid up to 25% of their pension fund without the need to pay any tax. I helped myself to this generous offer, applied for the opinion which came back within a short time. Like all barrister’s opinions it was cast in cautions and caveats but there was one notable omission. Nowhere did it say I was mad, rather to the contrary. The opinion, in forthright terms, confirmed that Section 17 was applicable to my case and the Council had erred in holding otherwise. I informed the Council of my findings and they wrote back to say they disagreed. I sent their reply to my barristers. There followed an exchange of opinions. The stress of the proceedings was taking its toll on me and I found myself dedicating less time to my business and more time to the battle in hand. As time and expenses passed, gradually all of my pensions were eaten into. Finally, I received a very forceful letter from my barrister outlining the strengths of my case and the errors the Council were making. It was at this stage I threw caution to the wind and let the Council have sight of the email chain between my barrister and myself. There came a change of heart. The inhouse solicitor from the Council that had been answering my emails stopped responding and a large London based firm took over the controls. Surprisingly, it came to light that not only was the Council unaware of its responsibilities under the Land Compensation Act, they had no provision in their procedures to rule on such cases. It became necessary for the full Council at their AGM to pass a motion sanctioning the planning subcommittee to consider applications under Section 17 of the Land Compensation Act. I was then invited to re-submit my application. In fairness to the Council, they admitted their shortcomings and at the following committee meeting my Certificate for Appropriate Alternative Development was passed by a vote of 12 to 1. One Councillor who was the most vociferous in damning the first application stubbornly stuck to his guns.

My win came as a great relief to me, now I could consider life ahead of me to being comparable to the life I was having to leave behind. Despite this good news the struggle was far from over. The Certificate had put added value on my claim, but the government were in no mind to be generous when acquiring properties. It was then that the services of Thomson Broadbent came to the fore. I think Chris could tell I was battle weary so he advised me to use a solicitor to ease the communication that would be needed with the services of a lawyer to settle my claim. Over the weeks Chris guided me through the heads of my claim of which there were many. Legal costs, expenses in obtaining alternative planning, time spent house hunting, business losses. To these were added the biggies, loss of my home, loss of my farmland, loss of the development site, all these had a value and research into reasonable comparisons had to be found.

After some months of deliberating over the extent of my claim with the HS2 agents there remained quite a wide gulf between the size of the claim Thomson Broadbent had compiled for me and that being offered on behalf of the Department of Transport. These were not small amounts, seven figure sums in fact. To help push my claim forward a meeting was arranged with the HS2 agents at their Oxford office. Representing HS2 were three chartered surveyors one for dwellings, one for agricultural land and buildings and one for development sites. On hearing that there were to be three Chris decided that he needed support and he brought along his firm’s senior partner, James Broadbent. This was to prove a crucial decision; we would have struggled without his expertise. It was not a necessity for me to attend the meeting, but I felt that if agents were discussing my life’s worth, I should be in on it.

The morning of the meeting arrived. Chris, his senior partner James and I met beforehand and discussed tactics over a cup of coffee. I was impressed by the combined knowledge of my would be advocates, so I relaxed. They had experience of these matters, they knew the strategies involved and the limits within which the government agents would be required to settle, and the outcomes they would try to avoid. They gave me this bit of advice which I well remember. They asked me to work out in advance a figure that I would be happy to accept, as these things always come down to compromise, and to let them know during the meeting when they were near to my target. With that we headed for the Oxford offices and met in a small conference room there. The meeting started well, so well that within minutes and on the strength of the comparisons and counter arguments Chris had provided, the offer from the other side rose to such an extent that the settlement figure I had in mind was already exceeded. I kept quiet, I had confidence in my team to negotiate further. They did, and although the increments got smaller, as discussion progressed the compensation on offer was now more in line with open market figures. The HS2 agents were quick to remind my team of how they were dealing with taxpayers’ money and had to be careful not to overspend. James had the perfect response. He reminded them to the fact that his client was being dispossessed and the importance of this meeting was to arrive at a settlement which reflected fairly on the combined losses. James’s frustration coupled with the forthright manner of his delivery sent his words resounding within the room. He had managed in just a few words to encapsulate exactly what I had been feeling and fighting for over the past six years.

The meeting carried on for what must have been a couple of hours with breaks being taken by both sides to discuss in private where changes might be agreeable. In the final one of the interludes James remembered to ask me if they were close to the figure I would be happy to settle for. I told him that they had surpassed my expectations five minutes into the meeting. We all laughed, the mood lightened. With that we decided to settle, the customary handshakes ensued.

Life can sometimes prove a difficult path. In part it can be a mixture of the mundane and the ordinary punctuated with trials and tribulations. Thankfully, there are the happy and fulfilling occasions too. Events like getting married, and the birth of my children spring to mind. To the list of happy occasions, I can add one more that is very important and singular to me – that one day in Oxford!”