This is big business, running roughshod over ordinary people
Telling our children they are likely to lose their home was devastating. Ruby, 11, the youngest of our three daughters, ran over to one of the oak beams and hugged it.
‘They can’t take away our lovely house.’ she cried. ‘I won’t let them.’
If only it were as simple as Ruby having her way.
The house is indeed lovely – a 17th century farmhouse seven miles from the beautiful Suffolk coast with its 250 square miles of outstanding natural beauty and some of the UK’s rarest wildlife at Minsmere nature reserve.
Fir Tree Farm, hidden from view by a 150 feet high row of the trees that give the property its name, is so secluded that since we moved here we have always said our only neighbours are acres of arable farmland, hares we watch boxing and huge skies so dark that on clear nights you can see satellites hurtling through space like shooting stars.
In a field bordering Fir Tree Farm, crops grow on rotation. The only pollution is at harvest time when, if the wind is strong, window sills get a light covering of dust from the field, and we have to remember not to leave washing on the line when a combine harvester is out.
It is on this land that EDF Energy, one of the UK’s Big Six utilities, proposes locating a construction compound for 300 workers and 175 trucks a day for two years while EDF build a new road, which will begin with a roundabout in the field and run for five miles towards the coastal village of Sizewell where the company wants to build two nuclear reactors. EDF say Sizewell C will take 10 years to complete and at the peak of construction 1,500 HGVs a day and more than 6,000 other vehicles will thunder past our lovely house.
This is not a story of Nimbyism, nor is it an emotive way to make a case against nuclear fuel, although the case against it from renewables and new technology is growing stronger. The UK is facing an energy crisis after Hitachi and Toshiba pulled out of plans to build nuclear power stations in Cumbria and North Wales, and this makes the case for Sizewell C compelling.
No, after months of trying to appeal to EDF to treat us fairly, this is a story of how politicians and big business run roughshod over ordinary people, like a bulldozer crushing prime farmland to make way for a new road.
Our eldest daughter, Olivia, 14, was born in London. Amelie, 13, came along while we were living in New York. Ruby spent her first two years in Dublin. A few years after returning from Ireland to London, my wife Michaela and I decided it was time to put down roots. With their education and health our priorities, we settled on Suffolk. For Michaela, a landscape artist, the coastline here had long been her muse, having discovered it on family holidays. Relocating from the city to the country in October 2013 also had the advantage of putting us much closer to my parents, who live in Suffolk. We knew it was inevitable that in years to come they would need more of our care.
At first viewing we knew Fir Tree Farm was ideal for raising our children. Nestled in several acres of land with two ponds and woodland, Fir Tree Farm gave us the seclusion and tranquility we longed for after two decades of fast-paced urban living. It also had potential and last year we spent 10 months working with architects, planners and the local conservation officer to extend the four-bedroomed farmhouse and replace our dilapidated barn with a new one, providing living accommodation for our parents whose need for support has become more pressing in recent months.
When a letter came from EDF last September we were relieved we had not hired contractors to start work. We were told that after two consultations on its Sizewell C ambitions, one which started in November 2012 and the other in November 2016, EDF was entering its final stage, ahead of applying to the Government for a Development Consent Order to build two nuclear reactors by the sea. The letter asked about ownership and use of our property because it had been identified as possibly being affected by EDF’s proposals.
I called the number EDF gave in the letter and was told curtly letters like ours were being sent to hundreds of people. This was all routine. No, they couldn’t say how EDF’s plans would affect us. Yes, we’ll be consulted in due course. No, there’s no date for when that will be.
I rang the agency EDF had commissioned to do the land referencing. A more courteous response, but I heard the same platitudes from the man who answered. I mentioned where I lived. I detected a change in his tone and he apologised he could not say more. Prior to investing in and working for several technology businesses, I had a career in national newspapers. Journalistic intuition told me Fir Tree Farm was impacted significantly – and the man I was talking to knew it.
I made inquiries and found someone with knowledge of the plans who said EDF wanted to build a road from the A12 towards Sizewell and no other property was impacted as much as ours. I was physically sick. So was Michaela when I told her. It struck us both how a home is so much more than a house. We decided not to tell our children until we had a clearer picture.
After making half a dozen calls to EDF for information, I was asked to a meeting by Tom McGarry, Head of Stakeholder Engagement for Sizewell C. In clinical and unsympathetic terms, he told me about the road. ‘We don’t want your property,’ he told me. ‘We’ll go round it.’
The first of my interactions with EDF set the tone for the others to come. Paucity of detail and brutally cold communications.
We took advice from a planning lawyer and a chartered surveyor specialising in Compulsory Purchase Orders. They explained the law is not on our side, and it would be financial madness to go ahead with plans to extend the property to provide accommodation for our parents. It was utterly devastating.
The proposed road was EDF’s response to a campaign against taking the construction traffic, which would include thousands of cars, vans and buses as well as 1,500 trucks every day, down the B1122, an existing single carriageway which runs through four villages and several hundred homes. The irony of the proposed road is it would end up running parallel to the B1122 – at one point the two roads would be around 500 feet apart – and many villagers feel the new road is revenge by EDF for them having forced the company to accept an alternative and more costly route to the one they had argued for since 2012.
Villagers had campaigned for a relief road called D2 at a location further south that would have had virtually no impact on properties. Councils and the local MP said EDF must consider the D2 option. Mountains of documents supported the case, but EDF dismissed it out of hand and also ruled out taking the bulk of construction materials by sea, despite this having been their intention for six years. Hence the Sizewell link road, right up against Fir Tree Farm.
Our only recourse was to appeal to EDF. The plans we had made for our parents were thwarted as soon as EDF told us about the proposed road, causing our family enormous distress. We have a pressing need for more room. The last thing Michaela and I wanted was the upheaval of moving from a home we love, but we accepted there was no alternative. Devastatingly, we wrote to EDF to ask them to buy us out. Given the £14 billion cost of Sizewell C, surely EDF could afford to be sympathetic to our situation? Even if it were to only look at it in dispassionate terms, would it not be obvious the construction of the road would have fewer impediments if there were not a family living right beside it?
How foolish we were to think EDF would be fair to us. Despite its assertions to be consulting widely, EDF does not appear to care about anyone who doesn’t agree with its plans. We felt we were being extremely reasonable, given the sacrifice we were willing to make, but our letter didn’t even get a response.
On January 4, EDF publicly announced its proposals and a consultation that would run for less than three months. Disclosure immediately blighted our property. We paid £685,000 for the property five years ago. Last month several estate agents suggested that despite it having been worth around £900,000 before the plans were announced, there may be little point marketing it, even if we did slash the price, which would be financially ruinous for us.
You see, even EDF’s own preliminary report into the environmental impact of the proposed road suggests Fir Tree Farm would suffer ‘significant adverse effects’ from noise from the compound during the two years it would take to construct the road. It highlights the only point on the road which would be lit by 33 feet high lighting columns is the proposed roundabout located next to us – no more stargazing for us and those boxing hares won’t be back. Oh, and did I mention the air pollution and contaminants forecast?
On EDF Energy’s timeline, construction of the road would start in 2021 and encompass the period when two of our three daughters would be studying for and sitting A Levels and GCSEs. How would our children possibly concentrate on their studies? Furthermore, both my wife and I work from home during the day, and the level of disruption advised by EDF Energy would make this impossible. How would an artist be expected to paint with 300 construction workers and 175 trucks next door? The dust alone would ruin her work, if she were able to focus on it.
Surely, we thought, EDF would recognise the economic and personal impacts on us? Far from it. We had to learn about the severity of its plans from reading them online. It was not until three days after the proposals were made public that we received a formal letter from EDF, stating our land was required. We thought EDF had capitulated and understood the urgency of our situation. Alas, no. We sought confirmation and 17 days later, EDF wrote back to say it may need only a small piece of our land, and refused to acquire our property.
Despite the immediate loss of value in our home and the economic disadvantage this would cause us were we to sell now, planning law does not offer homeowners a remedy at this stage. The earliest opportunity to formally make a case for compensation related to blight is when a proposed road has been approved, which in the case of EDF and Sizewell C is 2021 at the earliest. Blight legislation was drafted in the spirit of fairness to residents impacted by construction, but the bluntness around timing is open to abuse by developers – and it appears here that EDF is exploiting the legislation. Until the road is formally approved – and even then there could be a long and costly legal process to prove blight – we are lumbered with a house worth much less than we paid for it and which fails to meet our needs as a family.
We’re not alone. For example, there is a couple several miles further along the proposed road who have been living in a mobile home for the last year while they build their dream home. The link road will run right past their new house, shattering their dream of a peaceful retirement in the countryside.
EDF is required to run a formal consultation – its application to the Government cannot be submitted unless it can prove engagement with communities and other stakeholders. But this process lasts less than three months and started the day EDF released 1,281 pages online.
I’m lucky. I’m educated and have resources to hire specialists to interrogate the impacts on our family. As well as our lawyer and chartered surveyor, we have a highways engineer, an acoustics engineer and an ecologist reviewing the proposals.
But most people are not as fortunate, and this means there is an inequitable imbalance between a developer and those affected by a development. It’s all very well being consulted, but you need to be able to understand what you are being consulted on and have the means to respond appropriately.
Many of those who submitted detailed reports in two previous consultation stages are aggrieved their views are not addressed in the new proposals. Even the county council and district council have criticised EDF for failing to give enough information about how it will mitigate the impacts on the environment and local communities. The councils also said the short period of time EDF set aside for consultation makes it challenging to coordinate responses. At this final stage of consultation, EDF has in fact published an entirely new set of proposals about transport and other key matters – and given the public only 85 days in which to make sense of 1,281 technically complex pages.
EDF has put significant resource behind PR and social media to promote what it sees as the economic benefits of Sizewell C to Suffolk, hosting breakfasts for local business leaders – but it will not fund any individuals affected to investigate their assumptions, effectively making any meaningful engagement in the process means-tested. When I asked EDF to cover the costs of my professional advisors, it flatly refused.
There is, I believe, a national debate due on Sizewell C as part of a wider examination of the UK’s energy crisis. By 2030, around a quarter of our energy needs must be found from new sources because 14 of our 15 existing nuclear reactors are due to start closing by 2025 when remaining coal-fired power stations are also set for decommissioning. In the last four months Toshiba and Hitachi have pulled the plug on new nuclear plants at Moorside in Cumbria and Wylfa in North Wales. This potential shortfall in electricity for the UK makes a strong case for building Sizewell C, although the cost to consumers is eye-watering. For EDF’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, the government was forced to strike a lavish deal with EDF that locks in the price for electricity at an index-linked £92.50 – almost twice the cost of energy generated by wind power.
Due to a resistance from investors to back nuclear, as referenced in the decisions by Toshiba and Hitachi to pull the plug on their plans, EDF has said it will look to pension funds, including public sector pots, to finance Sizewell C – and if this happens there must surely be a national debate about the feasibility of the project. Calls are already being made for the Government to focus on a renewables-led energy strategy given the pace of technological advances and the considerably lower costs of offshore wind. Sir John Armitt, chairman of the the National Infrastructure Commission said the government should put the brakes on plans for a nuclear new build programme, arguing that wind and solar could deliver the same capacity as nuclear for the same price, with the added advantage of carrying less risk.
There are also serious questions about Chinese involvement in the UK’s infrastructure. EDF, which lost 200,000 UK customers last year, is propped up by the Chinese state-owned China Nuclear Group. Last October, the U.S. government warned the UK against partnering with CGN, claiming the business was taking civilian technology and using it for military purposes.
EDF held a series of public exhibitions in Suffolk to explain their proposals. At each of the three events, I attempted unsuccessfully to get answers about our situation from Jim Crawford, the Project Development Director. On my third attempt on January 19, I asked when he was going to respond to a letter I had sent a month earlier. He told me he had a draft response. I asked what was in it and he said he didn’t know as he hadn’t read it.
’So, it’s been written for you?’ I asked.
‘Well, I wouldn’t want you to read anything I wrote,’ he joked. ‘Our lawyers have drafted it and we’ll send it next week.’
I said I was disappointed they had not engaged with me sooner about our position, given the stress EDF had caused us.
At this point, EDF’s PR man, Simon Hazelgrove, who had been hovering, started laughing as he waved his arms in the direction of the display boards around the room.
‘What do you think this? We’re engaging with you!’
I asked: ‘Why are you laughing? This isn’t a laughing matter. There’s nothing funny about the anxiety EDF is causing my family.’
I decided to step away, dismayed by how they were treating me. Other people locally have told me of similar encounters with these and other EDF executives. I’m sure when they are with their own families and their colleagues they are decent people and their attempts at humour have their place. It saddens me that in their professional life they should have to behave in such a dehumanised manner, but perhaps I shouldn’t expect better given the way our politicians now behave?
I may have stepped away – indeed I intend to remain entirely reasonable – but EDF ought to know I’m not going away until they treat us fairly.