Skip to main content

East West Rail Route Consultation: North East Bedfordshire

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

The purpose of this evening’s Adjournment debate is to discuss the East West Rail consultation and North East Bedfordshire. I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the flaws caused by the consultation process for the East West Rail route decision from Bedford to Cambridge. This is not a debate to argue for or against the railway in principle. Nor is it a debate to support or oppose any particular route corridor, or line of route. The purpose of the debate is to expose the significant problems of the consultation, which have created a significant deficit of trust with many of my constituents, and to request the Minister to investigate the many concerns with how the East West Rail project between Bedford and Cambridge is progressing.

As we have seen over the last two decades—indeed, over the last two weeks—people are increasingly sensitive to top-down initiatives that fundamentally change their communities and over which they believe their voice has not been heard. I thank local parish councils and their co-ordinating group BFARe—Bedford for a Re-Consultation—for their forensic analysis in preparing for this debate, and mention that I live near Bedford station. I welcome the Minister, who has been very open with his time and attention to this project. Finally, I thank the chief executive officer of East West Rail, who has today agreed to join me in walking the routes later this month.

The flaws in the consultation are multiple. Individually and collectively, they have broken down the trust of many of my constituents. Let me briefly list the main concerns raised with me. The consultation exercise gives every indication of being purposefully designed to reduce the interest and participation of residents in the area ultimately selected for the route. Critical cost assumptions have escalated wildly and never been open to proper scrutiny, and are facts—facts—that were dramatically changed after the consultation had closed, making the least attractive route the most attractive route. Constituents were not provided with an opportunity to comment on that, giving every impression of its being a fix.

The environmental impact assessment was cursory, falls far short of our net zero expectations and may result in brutal scarring of the Bedfordshire countryside forever. Critical local authority input to the consultation from Bedford Borough Council, upon which the Minister and his Department will rely, was submitted without approval from the council as a whole—a secret plan, containing flaky economic assumptions, airbrushing out references to existing homes that will have to be demolished, and potentially concealing acceptance of additional housing development as the price to be paid for the chosen route.

Finally, there was a failure to account for multiple changes, from covid to an emphasis on freight, a more polluting fuel and still rising costs—changes that risk making this rail line between two leading universities not a shining 21st-century example of global Britain but a polluting white elephant with potentially very significant cost overruns.

The 2019 consultation exercise was not statutory, but as the phrase goes, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That consultation was not done well. Many parish councils on the potential routes were not contacted, including three in my constituency at Colmworth, Staploe and Wilden, all of which are on route E, the current preferred route. Postcards notifying residents of the consultation were sent to only some residents in the affected areas, not to all residents. Coverage of those postcards was variable; some wards received 5% coverage and others 20%, with no explanation for the variance.

Of the responses received to the consultation, fully half were from supporters of a single charity, which obviously made a tremendous effort to consult its members. That raises the question why East West Rail was not able to generate a fraction of that participation. Of all the in-person consultation events, not one was held in the area that was ultimately selected as the preferred route.

Those facts are the foundation for the lack of trust. I have spoken to countless residents who say they found out about the railway only after their opportunity to have their say was done. This is very shaky ground on which to proceed.

In the 2019 consultation documentation, there were five route options, A through E. Routes, A, B, C and D had costs of between £2 billion and £2.6 billion. Route E, the one subsequently chosen, had a substantially higher cost of £3.4 billion, £1 billion more than the average of the others, going into the consultation.

In the documentation released after the consultation, the cost figures for each of the routes A, B, C and D were raised by more than £1.3 billion, with increases of between 50% and 80%, yet the costs for route E were changed by only 9%. No satisfactory explanation has been provided for why East West Rail got the costs so hopelessly wrong on four of the route options and so forensically right on the one that it selected. The consequence was that route E went from being the most expensive to the second cheapest and became the preferred route.

It is clear why many residents feel cheated by a consultation that gives every appearance of having had its numbers fixed after their right to be consulted had ended. Does the Minister agree that the change in cost estimates played a significant role in the route decision process? Does he agree that that change clearly indicates that the consultation was done too early and gave a misleading impression to consultees? Does he worry, as I do, that the Treasury should be highly sceptical of any project cost estimates made in the future by East West Rail?

Two years after the first consultation, there remains considerable mystery about the costs and benefits of each route. As one constituent advises me, these uncertainties and the general lack of financial transparency indicate the clear risk of future cost overruns with a failure to achieve claimed economic benefits. I have asked East West Rail for a detailed session with me and others to unpack the costs and assumptions. Will the Minister nudge East West Rail to grant that meeting?

The Campaign to Protect Rural England for Bedfordshire has stated its firm opposition to the route selected and highlighted severe limitations in the consideration of the environment in the consultation.

I also entered the ballot to speak on behalf of my constituents, but clearly I was not as lucky as the hon. Gentleman. I share his concerns about the environmental impact of East West Rail, which is why I have called for the full electrification of the line. I cannot understand how the Government would even consider building new transport infrastructure into the 2030s without clean energy being the priority. What puzzles me is that route E has been known for at least three years, and the hon. Member—he can correct me if I am wrong—claims to be neutral about routes, but when route E was confirmed in January 2020, he said:

“I am pleased that the government has made this announcement to progress investment in this important rail link.”

Perhaps he can clarify that, and I will come back in.

The hon. Gentleman may or may not come back in—I think that is up to me to decide. Having granted him the opportunity to speak on behalf of his constituents, it is rather strange that he took the opportunity to quote—or misquote—my views to try to sow division on this issue. Actually, what he should be doing is speaking up for his constituents whose houses are being demolished as part of this process. That is what I thought he was going to intervene about, but apparently not.

As I was saying, the CPRE has raised a more fundamental point, with which I agree: the detailed assessment of environmental impact is being done right at the end of the process, rather than being front and centre at the start of the process. It rightly asks how a route that is longer and hillier, requiring significant additional construction and carving its way through open countryside, can have a carbon footprint consistent with our net zero targets? As a result, environmental impact is seen as the guise of mitigation rather than as a full part of a proper assessment. We cannot be a Government committed to biodiversity and protection of our natural habitat if we continue this practice. The Minister—indeed, the Prime Minister—has the opportunity with East West Rail to take a stand on this matter. Will the Minister therefore raise these environmental concerns directly with No. 10 and gain its assurance that this project, with all its changes, has the Prime Minister’s endorsement as being fully compliant with his green agenda?

In major project consultations, the opinions and views of local authorities are a crucial input. Local authorities are the voice of local opinion, and they undertake many of the facilitating functions—land acquisition, planning and construction mediation among others. The Minister had every right to expect a local authority to act democratically and sensitively in being that voice and in providing its input to him. Yet that was definitively not the case with Bedford Borough Council’s submission to the 2019 consultation, which was not presented to, debated by or voted on by local councillors. Indeed, not one of the councillors in the wards in my constituency was given that courtesy.

Essentially, the directly elected Mayor of Bedford submitted his secret plan, which added costs, made journey times longer and created an environmentally brutal route. I fully appreciate that the Mayor was committed to a line running through the centre of town rather than to a parkway station, but that personal commitment did not give him or his executive the right to bypass his own council’s scrutiny. He may say that he had that discretion, but my constituents feel duped. And for what? What was the big economic gain for the borough? The council’s own analysis says that the proposal adds just 0.05% to annual economic growth—0.05% is hard to justify to the owners of homes that will have to be demolished.

Further, there are unanswered questions about whether the push for that route required the borough council to accede to additional future housing growth in the borough—essentially, whether the plan was secret because it stored up a development bombshell for rural north Bedfordshire. Will the Minister therefore advise me what significance the input of a local authority has in his Department’s evaluation of rail route options? Will he also allay the fears of my constituents that, in regard to additional housing or development expectations, there was no direct or indirect communication with Bedford borough by his Department or any other Department as a result of the routing of East West Rail through the town centre.

Engineering considerations for the route remain a source of significant contention. A consultancy was hired by the borough council to advise on engineering costs twice in the space of two months. In its first report it stated that the northern routes,

“come at a price of increased construction costs, increased disruption during construction, longer journey times and increased operational costs, as well as increased congestion and other highway costs.”

One month later, it produced a second report, stating that Bedford Borough Council

“has developed its own preliminary Route E design that reduces the cost differential to Route A by nearly half and avoids much of the highway disruption.”

Will the Minister advise me as to whether he was aware of what special engineering source was discovered by the council in that one month? I believe their analysis has proved highly influential with East West Rail, yet these figures from the council have never be made open to external review so that that assumption can be questioned in detail.

A number of changes have been made since the origination of this consultation. It originated in Lord Adonis’s Oxford-Cambridge arc vision, as part and parcel of acceding to the provision of 1 million homes in this region between Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, including Bedfordshire, yet just a week or two ago the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed to me that that 1 million homes target is no longer a target. We know that the other project of Lord Adonis’s vision, the expressway, is no longer a long expressway; it has been junked in Buckinghamshire. We know that covid has changed crucial traffic assumptions, with greater working from home and with the opportunity for more office space in London to be converted to residential. We know that the vision for East West Rail has been cascading back in history, from his shining, 21st century, forward-looking vision where we connect two—potentially three—of our great universities to one involving a 19th century fuel of dubious merit. The Government have issued a 10-point plan for net zero, yet in some ways there are concerns that East West Rail now stands directly against those ambitions. As I said, we have more examples to show that people will change lifelong voting intentions to express their discontent with top-down projects that fundamentally change their surroundings.

I support East West Rail—I think it is a good idea, and the vision has its strengths—but what we are now being sold as the vision of East West Rail is not what the original intention was. Worse still, the process of going from that original vision to where we are now has destroyed trust, faith and belief in East West Rail, rather than building it up. People like infrastructure and we talk about it a lot here, but when people think about infrastructure they are talking about improvements to their town centres, about making it easier for them to get access to a GP appointment or about ensuring that their child gets into a good local school; it is not thought of in terms of spatial frameworks, visions for the future by departed technocrats or consultation exercises that treat people like fools. I urge the Minister to take these concerns and priorities seriously, play his part in restoring trust in this process and give the people that rail connection that they want, can understand and believe in.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on securing this debate on the East West Rail route consultation and the role played by the proposed railway within his constituency. I welcome his support for East West Rail as a concept, at the very least. I know that that is shared by the vast majority of his constituents, because, as he knows, he has instigated meetings where I have met people from a number of parishes and parish council leaders in his constituency and found that the concept of the railway is very much welcomed. However, they do have legitimate questions to ask and I hope I can answer some today. I have listened carefully to his representations about the impact of East West Rail on his constituency and his concerns about this being a fair consultation, and I will try to answer many of them now.

As my hon. Friend will know, a new railway line between Bedford and Cambridge is required to deliver the full East West Rail scheme between Oxford and Cambridge. In that vein, the East West Rail Company held a consultation, as he said, on route options A to E—we like nattily described route options in the rail industry—which was open from 28 January to 11 March 2019. The outcome of that consultation saw the selection by East West Rail of route E as the preferred route option, announced, as my hon. Friend will remember, in January 2020.

The conclusions in respect of route E were reached using a number of assessment factors, such as faster journey times, lower fares and faster road journeys as a result of road users diverting to rail. The higher transport user benefits arise due to route E serving the most households, both within the catchment area around Bedford Midland station and in the growing population in Cambourne.

My hon. Friend mentioned the other recent non-statutory consultation, which included five route alignment options for the Bedford-Cambridge section of East West Rail, as well as the concepts for train service provision and stations between Bletchley and Bedford. The East West Railway Company is currently analysing the responses, and a preferred route alignment option based on the consultation feedback, the application of the assessment factors and ongoing design work will be announced in due course.

My hon. Friend will be aware that both consultations were non-statutory and so were not a legal requirement for the project to continue. Indeed, they were examples of East West Rail trying to ensure that it was listening to the voices of people along the proposed routes. The East West Railway Company genuinely does want to hear from the people affected and use their views to shape the design of the railway. I hope my hon. Friend understands that the new chairman of the East West Railway Company is determined to listen to the views of the people along the route.

There are no fixed rules about the duration of a non-statutory consultation, but the East West Railway Company decided to run the consultation for a period of 10 weeks to provide opportunities for virtual question and answer sessions—given the lack of in-person meetings because of the pandemic—and to try to ensure that people had enough time to respond in a meaningful way.

My Department is content that both consultations met open and fair consultation standards. A range of promotional activity took place for both consultations, including, as my hon. Friend said, the sending of postcards to more than 120,000 households and businesses in the consultation zone for the first consultation, increasing to 270,000 for the recent consultation, to ensure that the virtual nature of the consultation did not mean that people missed out on the chance to take part. Advertisements were placed in key local publications and social media and local print were utilised.

Public consultation has been and continues to be a crucial part of the development of the East West Rail project, which is why the East West Railway Company has made great efforts to speak to as many local people as possible from an early stage. While I am the Minister responsible, the company will continue in that spirit as the project is progressed. Indeed, in my time as the sponsor Minister for the project I have tried to sit in on as many meetings as I can so that I can see exactly what is going on and how people’s views are being reflected.

The Minister is absolutely right—he really has been on the front foot in engaging with people, as well as with me directly—but does he recognise that there is a difference between speaking to and listening? One concern that my constituents have is that in respect of some of the options that could really affect things, the conversation has been closed down and their concerns are not being listened to.

I completely get what my hon. Friend says, which is why I have tried my best and, I think, have succeeded in making sure that East West Rail actually listens to people along the route. I hope my hon. Friend will see that reflected in what comes out of the recent consultation as we move forward.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very kind. I will make two points briefly. One is that I have been told there is no chance of rerunning the consultation. Is there any realistic chance of rerunning it, because some people believe it was not run properly? Secondly, will he support the four-track option, rather than the six-track option? The four-track option will avoid the demolition of houses in my constituency.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points. If he would not mind, I would like him to take a little question from me. I believe he supports East West Rail as well, so it is a question of making sure that his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire are listened to properly, so that those who will be affected by the construction of this new railway, or elements of it, feel that their voices have been listened to, their concerns have been acted upon and everything has been done that can possibly be done to address the concerns.

I hear the point that the hon. Member for Bedford makes about four-tracking. I am no engineer, and I will not promise something that I cannot deliver. Nor will I promise something when I do not know where it is in the planning stages of East West Rail. I will happily go away and talk to East West Rail about it, because I know it is something that it will be considering as an option moving forward.

I am encouraged that the Minister wishes to enlist me in support for East West Rail—that is on the concept—but he knows what motivates me, which is: do the numbers add up and does the thing add up logically? I have two fundamental concerns that he has not addressed, and perhaps he will. Why is it right to go into a consultation with a clear set of numbers that go one, two, three, four, five, close the consultation and then present—“Ta-dah!”—we have changed all the numbers around, and now we are going to go with the option that originally went in as being the highest cost and now comes out as being the best option? That does not look right and is not right, and the Minister knows that if things are built on shaky foundations like that, trust is eroded at every further step. Will he therefore please look at that issue again and help East West Rail to try to close the trust deficit on that particular issue?

I will always do everything I possibly can to help my hon. Friend, his constituents and East West Rail to close that deficit gap on trust, as he says. I believe that there is a route through—not a physical route, but we should be using best practice to consult people on projects that will affect them at some point in time. I am also determined to deliver this project at pace and on budget, because there have been huge problems in the past with big rail infrastructure projects that have run over time and people’s lives have been blighted for much, much longer than they ever should have been because of the incapacity to deliver said rail project on time. That is not going to happen with East West Rail, and I will do whatever I can to allay the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents. I will happily talk to him separately again about how he believes I can assist in doing that. I am really happy to assist.

Public consultation has been and continues to be a crucial part of the development of this project, which is why the company has made all those efforts to speak to so many people. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bedford were rightly concerned about the impact the project will have on constituents’ homes. It is entirely understood that the proposals will affect people’s homes and businesses, and farms in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire. The East West Railway Company aims to minimise the negative impacts on people’s land and property and mitigate any unavoidable impacts. The East West Railway Company’s recent consultation included proposals for an initial compensation scheme for those affected.

My hon. Friend asked whether I could jog the elbow of the East West Railway Company, so that they can have a meeting on the true cost. He is a good businessman, a good politician and a good representative of his constituents, but he also knows that it is taxpayers’ money funding this project. I know he wants to get the best value he can possibly get, as do I, so I will not just nudge the elbow of the East West Railway Company; I will ensure that meeting happens in short order and that all the documents he requires are made available to him beforehand, so that he can do the preparation work he would like to do to do his job properly.

I completely get the point that my hon. Friend made about the environmental concerns. I am not one to go to No. 10 to ask for something—that is a tad above my pay grade—but I continue to listen to him on the question he is essentially asking: is there evidence that quality environmental assessments have been made on East West Rail? An appraisal was undertaken to assess the comparative environmental sustainability of the route options as part of the process for determining a preferred route option, as described in the preferred route option report. That assessment concluded that the routes by Cambourne—routes, B and E—were broadly comparable and had the

“fewest problematic areas with potential direct impacts on irreplaceable or sensitive features and the lowest likely mitigation effort.”

East West Railway Company will continue to assess the potential environmental effects as part of the route alignment development work. An environmental impact assessment will be undertaken and an environmental statement submitted when East West Railway Company submits its development consent order application to the Planning Inspectorate. It will therefore be going by the letter and in the spirit of the rules and the law.

My hon. Friend asked me about Bedford Borough Council’s representations and the Bedford Mayor’s secret plan. I have no idea whether the Bedford Mayor has a secret plan, but I truly believe he would not have had undue influence over any of the plans for East West Rail. I have asked the question previously, but I will happily go away and ask East West Rail whether it can bring anything to me so that we can either finally put to one side and dismiss what my hon. Friend says, or, if there is something in it, have it out in the open so that everyone can see it. It would then probably be a matter for local politics. However, I do not believe that would be the case, because I do not believe there is anything to see.

My hon. Friend asked about the significance of local authority contributions to the consultation process. I come back again and again to the point that we want everybody and anybody interested and affected by the proposed route alignment and the development of the railway to be involved in its design so that we get the process completely right. I believe there would have been significant conversations between the local authorities along the route and the East West Railway Company; less so, to be honest, with my Department, because that is not necessarily our brief. As he knows, his constituents will have many further opportunities to raise issues for consideration, including in a statutory consultation. In the meantime, anyone who wishes to make representations should contact the East West Railway Company to have their voices heard.

With that, I hope that I have answered a number of my hon. Friend’s points. I am determined that we and East West Rail are as open and transparent as possible with my hon. Friend, with other Members of Parliament in interested areas and with people potentially affected along the individual routes. I hope to have demonstrated by action, not just word, that I truly believe that East West Rail needs to do that. I will continue to turn up at meetings with his parish councillors and others to ensure that that is the case. There will be further opportunities to influence the decisions that will have an effect—hopefully a very positive one—on the lives of his constituents going forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.