The Government has announced it’s desire to build national infrastructure – the HS2 rail line – on vast tracts of land across the country. Perfectly natural, you might think for the Government to sell it’s plans to the public – they want to secure votes after all – but there is something queer here. It transpires that that Government does not yet own all the land required to build the line. In a free-market this would be utter foolishness. In a free market knowledge of increased need or an increase in return tends to push prices up, not down. It would be far better to keep the line a secret and attempt to acquire as much land as possible before anyone figures out what is happening. Observe how the price of accommodation has changed due to the Olympics rolling into Stratford:
In the 12 months to September, the average asking price in Greenwich, Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest increased by three per cent from £276,751 to £284,396, according to the research by property website FindaProperty.co.uk.
In the same period, prices in London’s other boroughs grew by an average of only 1.6 per cent, while across the country as a whole asking prices fell by 0.3 per cent.
The sharpest rises were in Newham, where the athletes’ village is under construction and where many of the main facilities will be located. Prices there rose by seven per cent year-on-year.
These areas have some of the cheapest property in London but will benefit from a huge investment in infrastructure that will have an impact far beyond the Olympics.
So, even with new construction, prices for accommodation rose dramatically on the back of infrastructure investment making the land more desirable, long term. A train line is a very useful piece of infrastructure, and adds to simple demand by adding itself to the range of possible uses for the land. Common sense would indicate prices along the whole tract of land would go up.
Why then are land owner groups and local authorities up in arms?
The [Country Land and Business Association] urged landowners significantly affected by the [new network] to consider applying to the Exceptional Hardship Scheme to buy their property now at its full value before it is devalued by the rail line
The most talked about reason is Blight: the idea that adding obstacles and noise/visual pollution actually damages the value the of the land, though in an open market I wonder whether different owners might still appreciate the land, and appreciate it more, than the current owners with the line and new service roads in place. The drop in the anticipated demand for the land might even be outweighed by the strong – and now publicly known – desire of a very rich buyer to acquire it. Also, in a free market, no route for a train line would be announced if the land owners did not want to sell, and savvy owners would not sell to a scheme that did not benefit them. In a free market, this would not be a long straight track running through tunnels and cuttings but the most curvacious route with the most branch lines and stations feasible to satisfy the requirements of the landowners most willing to sell. In fact, in a free-market land owner groups might even be bidding for the track as the authorities bid for the Olympics, not lobbying for greater compensation. Residents would be flocking to the area, as they did to the land opened up by the Great North Railway and not looking to sell up and leave.
The dramatic difference is, of course, that this is not a free market at all. The CLA anticipates that the land will be acquired under Compulsory Purchase Orders. So instead of land owners co-operating on bids, the route is determined by what is most politically acceptable. Instead of acting as an incentive for landowners the bottomless pockets of the buyer are used to placate particular political leaders.
Opponents of the scheme don’t seem to appreciate the drama of this difference. They represent the people who own this land. They, or their ancestors, paid for this land with blood sweat and tears. It is rightfully, morally, theirs and rather than making a deal the Government is taking it from them by force.
The television coverage and broad direction of this debate has focused on the environmental considerations and Blight in particular. This is less persuasive, for me, than the the fact that the individual rights of members of these communities are being violated and their land stolen under a bureaucratic fig leaf. Reform of CPO procedures and increases in compensation are ways to mitigate the damage done by this theft. The way to prevent the theft would be the abolition of Compulsory Purchase in Parlaiment as a moral affront. Getting these ideas into the debate is the job of associations that represent the communities affected, some associations will need to concentrate on mitigation, but community groups should also consider the basic problems and fight them righteously.