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East West Rail: Bedford to Cambridge

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2023

[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Bedford to Cambridge section of East West Rail.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and to discuss the recent announcements on the Bedford to Cambridge link for East West Rail. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for permitting this debate, and for the attendance of colleagues from other areas affected by the decision in my area. The areas directly affected include the parishes of Brickhill, which I share with the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin); Clapham; Ravensden; Wilden; Wyboston, Chawston and Colesden; Roxton; and Tempsford. Neighbouring parishes will also be affected, including Great Barford, Little Barford and Everton.

Many people think that a railway from Oxford to Cambridge is a nice idea. I used to think that too, but as I have got into the details of the railway, and as the performance of East West Rail has rolled out, my confidence and support have been completely eroded. Parliamentary colleagues present today will have their own questions for the Minister, and I am grateful to him for being here and for his helpful interactions with me. I will share with him after the debate specific questions that constituents have asked me to raise with him, and perhaps he can respond to them in due course, but I want to highlight six key asks today.

First, will the Minister agree to visit my constituency to walk the proposed route? Secondly, will the Minister ask the National Audit Office to conduct an inquiry into the East West Railway Company to provide the independent scrutiny that has been lacking to date? Thirdly, will the Minister release the full business case and cost-benefit analysis after the “theory of change” assessment, including all details of anticipated passenger and freight traffic, a discounted cash flow and a net present value? Fourthly, will the Minister today instruct East West Rail to release more detailed maps online, so that people can see what the impact is on their parish, their street or their home? Fifthly, will the Minister instruct East West Rail to write to all property owners whose homes or land are within the current corridor, explaining what the specific impact will be on their homes or properties? Finally, will the Minister conduct a full evaluation of the current status of primary care supply and demand in my constituency, and of East West Rail’s impact on that?

Last month’s announcement by East West Rail was supposed to clarify, to be deterministic, to eliminate doubts, to sideline the nimbys and to propose a great national project of economic growth. It has failed on all those fronts. Instead of a final route, we now have a completely new twist to the story between Roxton and Tempsford, and there is more doubt about the form of traction, although perhaps that is just deflection by East West Rail. Far from sidelining opposition from nimbys, the announcement has galvanised a much wider political alliance of those who have lost faith in the project and the company and who believe there is a greener, better alternative to support growth where we live.

On the question of growth, East West Rail should be a real opportunity for growth, but real problems will arise if the surrounding infrastructure is not there, which will put pressure on people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, together with East West Rail, the Government really need to work with local communities to create additional infrastructure, such as bus services and GP services, so that people see the benefits of that growth?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that is why I circulated a letter, which all parties have signed, calling for exactly that: a greener alternative that focuses on sustainable growth and the work-life patterns that people want, not a 19th-century solution that is supposed to unlock growth on an unproven model.

One could sense the political support ebbing away from East West Rail as the announcement was made. The truth is that it has brought no relief to those most affected. I understand that, in a rearguard action today, Beth West, the chief executive of East West Rail, has said that she will approach Government to enable the purchase of houses that are currently planned to be demolished. That would help people who are already two or three years into uncertainty. As an additional ask, will the Minister instruct East West Rail to send an advice note to people whose homes or properties are within the proposed corridor and, included in that, the expected distance from the rail route itself? That will provide clarity to more people, particularly in the villages affected.

The Minister will know that we had elections recently, and that they have brought political change. I am not sure that the election results around the country were good for the Conservative party, but in Bedford borough, the Conservatives won the directly elected mayoralty for the first time ever. That was a repudiation of the Liberal Democrat Mayor, who had strongly supported East West Rail and such an environmentally destructive route across north Bedfordshire, with its phoney economic benefits for the town. Now with Tom Wootton as the Mayor, we have someone who is clear and determined in his opposition to the proposals presented by East West Rail. Conversely, in central Bedfordshire we also have a new leader—an independent, whose ward encompasses Tempsford, the site of a station that may herald substantial housing development, measured in the tens of thousands. Does the Minister appreciate the current scale of interest in alternatives to the project, given these political changes?

I have been contacted, without solicitation, by many sources and experts decrying the performance of the East West Rail Company. One constituent with expertise wrote to me to say:

“From my experience and observations the insincerity of the process pursued by EWR has been its most glaring weakness. In equal measure, however, any such criticism must also lie at the door of the Department for Transport who appear to be an acquiescing partner in the woefully inadequate activities of EWR. Unfortunately, the Government as a whole cannot escape association with the feeling of disillusionment generated through continuous stonewalling, lack of logical business planning, flouting of the law (freedom of information) and insincerity of approach.”

The route chosen by East West Rail is so full of twists and turns, and ups and downs, that it surely competes with what is probably our country’s bendiest road, the B3081 at Cann Common in Dorset—I am not sure whether the Minister knew that—which

“twists and turns more than many an Alpine climb.”

Those words could be applied to the route chosen by East West Rail. Back in the Victorian age, when Governments and others knew how to build railways, they chose a straighter, less hilly route. I encourage the Minister to watch the video from Alison, a constituent of the hon. Member for Bedford, who clearly outlines East West Rail’s irrationality in choosing a route with such topography.

One of the principals behind the campaign, BFARe, Bedford For a Re Consultation, wrote to tell me:

“The crux of the issue stems from the fact that the NSIP process contains a ratchet mechanism whereby the narrowing down of options precludes a fundamental review/rethink of alternatives when better evidence comes to light about previously discarded options. The starting premise for growth in the Arc was flawed and the initial public consultation into the scheme in 2019 was so badly handled that it shut out a lot of people and communities who stood to be most impacted by the scheme”.

Another constituent wrote to me expressing the view of many in my constituency:

“To get to Cambridge I personally would drive to the park and ride and get on a bus to the centre of the city; not drive to Bedford station, pay to park, buy an expensive train ticket to get a train which would not take me to the centre.”

I will spend some time on the cost-benefit analysis, because I think it is an open secret that nobody thinks that East West Rail is financially viable. Less than a year ago, the former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), when on the LBC radio show of Mr Iain Dale, had the following interaction. Mr Dale: “What would you cut from your Transport budget?” The former Secretary of State: “I would take East West Rail and I would remove.” Iain Dale: “Why haven’t you done it already?” The former Secretary of State: “Well, I haven’t had the opportunity.” Iain Dale: “You are the Transport Secretary. You could easily have done it already. You could have gone to the Chancellor and said, ‘I know you want to cut spending; here is one way you could do that.’” The former Secretary of State: “I have done that in other ways, but you have just asked what I would do as Prime Minister, and I am telling you I would cut East West Rail on what is called two and three, so there’s the second and third tranches of it, and save £3 billion to £5 billion straight away.” I therefore ask the Minister what he would do if he was Prime Minister?

A constituent wrote to me on the cost-benefit analysis and said:

“As someone who has had the ‘we intend to drive a railway line through your property’ notice recently I'd really like to get two questions answered, as this document failed entirely to do so. Where is an up to date business case? No-one has seen one, no-one affected believes a valid business case now exists…When will EWR engage directly with home owners on the route to purchase land?”

I have mentioned that second point already. East West Rail states in its documents:

“While the Business Case is still in development and won’t be completed until we’ve obtained the required consent for the Project...In the final weeks before publication, the proposals are subject to a cross-Government approval process.”

So it will get consent and then tell us what the business case is.

Appendix 5 to the economic and technical report discusses the “economic appraisal”. The report states that it will:

“compare benefits against costs over the life of a project or for a defined period of time. As is typical for infrastructure projects, the monetised impacts of EWR are projected to a point 60 years from entry into service. Both the benefits and costs are discounted and presented in 2010 prices and values in line with TAG guidance”—

transport analysis guidance. The report continues:

“The 60-year value is known as the Present Value (PV).”

It concludes:

“Standard approach to modelling and forecasting results showed us that, in conventional appraisal terms, the BCRs were ‘poor’ across all options”.

What does “poor” mean? It means benefit-cost ratios of 0.26 to 0.42—and that is based on the high-growth option. The high-growth option means that the best benefit-to-cost ratio is less than half the amount taxpayers will be asked to put into the railway. What does that mean in terms of cost to the taxpayer? It means £1.5 billion to £2.4 billion thrown away on a railway.

East West Rail seeks an escape route from such a common-sense economic appraisal. It states:

“These early estimates of costs were a key driver of the BCRs, which did not account for the transformational and strategic benefits considered later as part of the application of our Theory of Change.”

Over two chapters, East West Rail attempts to draw in every possible justification for its project. It talks about east-west connectivity, but it does not mention the cancellation of the expressway. It talks about housing costs, but it does not notice that the highest costs are where railways exist. Thus its proposals are as likely to increase house prices in areas where they are lower than in Cambridge than they are to lower house prices in Cambridge itself. It ignores the power of the market, with private companies already making decisions about where to locate if Cambridgeshire is too expensive. For example, Marshall Aerospace is very sensibly relocating to Cranfield Airport.

Before I entered Parliament, I was a partner in a strategy consulting firm, advising large businesses and utilities on investment decisions. I was also a partner in a venture capital fund, investing in the high-growth businesses of tomorrow. I am also a graduate of Havard Business School, and I can use all that life experience and those qualifications to assess the theory of change exercise by East West Rail as complete nonsense. What is the Department for Transport metaphorically smoking if it continues to go along with this economic illiteracy? I may have missed the financial conclusion of the theory of change exercise, but perhaps the Minister can advise us whether he will release the full financial case, together with all the assumptions and sources. Today, I issue a challenge to the chief executive of East West Rail to attend a public debate with me to argue the economic case for and against this project—openly, transparently and honestly.

We all know the real reason behind all of this: it is about housing. A constituent wrote to me saying:

“From the economic and technical report, it is clear that Bedford is viewed as simply a cheaper housing estate separate from where all the jobs are expected to be—in and around Cambridge. So what’s in this for Bedford?”

The real reason for East West Rail is the concreting over of north Bedfordshire. We have the issue of the Tempsford interchange section, with reports of up to 40,000 new homes in a village that currently has 400 residents. There is also Stewartby, in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, where pages 92 and 93 of the economic and technical report suggest the railway will open up 70,000 jobs to households. In my estimation, that amounts to about 35,000 houses.

I am not a nimby on housing—we should all do our fair share—but as the MP for North East Bedfordshire I have to point out that there is considerable pressure on GPs, dentists and school places. Without investment in that soft infrastructure, it is very unwise to support additional housing growth.

Does the hon. Member agree that it is unfair to call people such as those in Mid Bedfordshire who are raising these absolutely real concerns nimbys? People need those services to go with the growth and the increased railway line.

I do, but I would not do what I understand the Liberal Democrats are doing in Mid Bedfordshire, which is to ask people which housing estate they do not like so that they can oppose it—that is not the right way to do it. However, as regards very large-scale developments, the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and we should have that consideration. In 2019 I stood on a manifesto calling for infrastructure first on these large-scale developments. I do not know whether the Minister can give me an update on that—it is not his remit, so I do not expect him to, but it is important, and he stood on the same manifesto as I did.

We should all do our fair share. I looked at the census data on the growth in households between the 2011 and 2021 censuses. The national average increase in households over that period was 6%, and I think we all feel that rapid growth in our constituencies. Perhaps unwisely, I then decided to look at specific constituencies. I looked at the Chancellor’s constituency, and he is doing his bit, with 6% growth. I looked at the Secretary of State for Transport’s constituency, and there was a 9% increase in households over that period, which is a substantial amount above the national average. The Minister, who is responsible for rail, had only 5% growth, but we will forgive him that 1%. In North East Bedfordshire from 2011 to 2021, there was 21% growth, which is already three and a half times the national average of growth in households. That is already putting pressure on GP services, dentists and school places. How on earth can I, as the MP for North East Bedfordshire, allow further pressure through an increase in housing growth until those problems are dealt with?

I want to turn to the environmental impact. I had an interaction today with Councillor Tracey Wye, who represents the ward that includes Potton. She wrote to me to say she would like to see a commitment that this project would be in harmony with the environment—something so future-proof, leading-edge and creative that we would be at the leading edge of sustainability and climate resilience. I could not agree more; she is absolutely right.

We have been a bit misled, I would say—perhaps that is unfair—about the electrification of this line. Originally, in the Railways Act 2005, it was going to be electrified as part of the electric spine. In the high-level output specification of July 2012, the line was listed as a new electric railway line. It was then dropped by East West Rail Company, but the company’s latest document now says that it may come back. Minister, which is it? Are we electrified or are we not? Is it battery powered or not? The announcement was supposed to clarify the form of traction, but it has done nothing of the sort.

I believe that Ministers know that the original plans by Lord Adonis in the 2017 “Partnership for Prosperity” report were bogus, and they have not kept pace with changes in working patterns and our greater focus on environmental issues. A previous Secretary of State cancelled the Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway in 2021, stating that

“analysis shows that the benefits the road would deliver are outweighed by the costs”.

Precisely that charge can be laid today against East West Rail, so why is the current Secretary of State not taking the same action?

A constituent wrote to tell me:

“From a net-zero perspective, how could they possibly introduce a new transport link, with the intention of running diesel trains on it until 2040 at the earliest? Hardly what you’d describe as inspirational or forward thinking.”

Another constituent wrote:

“As someone with long standing involvement in the biotech industry and academic community, I would question the whole rationale for the railway in the first place. Of course we all want to consolidate Cambridge’s position as a technology hub, but if science and industry in Oxford and Cambridge want to collaborate they’d do it remotely. East West Rail is a 19th century response to a problem for which we in the 21st century have solutions that are cheaper, better and less environmentally destructive.”

I call on the Minister to consider those solutions.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Mark, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate. We have had many animated discussions about this subject in the past, and it will probably not surprise him to know that I take a slightly different view, but I commend him for the powerful way in which he has represented his constituents. I suspect others will do the same, because infrastructure projects of this type always cause problems for local constituents, and I have every sympathy with them.

This debate about East West Rail, the Cambridge to Milton Keynes to Oxford link or the arc—call it what you will—has been going on for a long, long time. I have been involved in discussions and debates about it for many years, and frankly I want to move beyond the debates and get the railway done.

I pay tribute to the many people who have campaigned tirelessly on these issues, including those noble councillors who set it all in motion many years ago and the East West Main Line Partnership. I am grateful for the work of the National Infrastructure Commission, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the all-party group for the east of England, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I wish to make three main points relating to the history and the purpose of the project, and the economic and environmental value of getting it delivered.

It has been a long-running goal of rail enthusiasts to restore the lost line between Cambridge and Oxford, which has been made harder by the loss of some of the old Varsity line route. I remember conversations some 20 years ago at least, when some foresighted people were talking about it, and over time the issue came to be picked up by local authorities, which could see the broader benefits. By the time I came into this place in 2015, that campaign was picking up pace. In the subsequent eight years, I can barely recall all the conferences, party groups, business tsars and leaders who have come and gone, some of whom were never appointed in the first place —“announcements and then steps back”, as it has been described. I fear that is all part of the rather hopeless way we go about building infrastructure in this country.

I remember that, at one Budget, the then Chancellor invited Members to show up at a surgery-style session with the Minister in one of those gloomy ministerial offices down the corridor. The then Minister, who shall remain nameless, looked absolutely astonished that anyone had actually shown up. We then had a rather civilised conversation—I think that is when the business tsar came and went—and I put to him the questions that I have been putting for a number of years: what is this line for, and will it be electrified? Predictably, answer came there none.

I put exactly the same question—what is the line for?—to one of the senior civil servants who had been working on the project at one of the many annual conferences about the arc. I was absolutely flabbergasted to get the reply that they were planning to consult on exactly that issue, which seems to be rather the wrong way around.

Back in 2017, at another one of those conferences, I challenged the then chair of the East West Rail Company over electrification, and he publicly promised that not a litre of diesel would be bought. As we have heard, that issue remains unresolved—although given that we are still quite a long way off seeing any trains, I suppose that pledge has been honoured so far.

At that time, the Government were planning to build not only a new rail line but, as we also heard, a major new road. Considerable time and effort were spent on that. I must say that I always opposed the road on the same line that has been mentioned: it is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. It was absolutely the wrong thing to do when we were trying to encourage a modal shift, and I am glad that it was finally abandoned.

I might be testing the Minister slightly, but can he tell us how much was spent on that abortive project, how many civil servants are still working on the arc project—including beyond the Department for Transport, in other Departments—and how long that project team has been going? I seem to have been aware of it for a number of years, and we really need to see some output from all that work.

That brings me to my main point. As I have said, I understand the concerns about the route. First, I am glad that the southern route has been settled on near Cambridge, because overall that seems to be the most sensible. However, the reason for my unswerving support for the project is that I believe that the environmental and economic benefits will be significant. Environmentally, we know that we have to move people off roads. It may be that the world is changing, but I think—and the evidence is rising on this—that people will want to get back to face-to-face contact.

We are in a climate emergency. If people want to really see the benefits of a new infrastructure, they need to see the benefits to both the environment and their health. The Government are not making electrification the main priority. Is that not really what this line should be about—electrification?

I served on the Transport Committee with the Minister for a number of years, and I appreciate that these issues are not straightforward or simple, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right. In the end, electrification is obviously the way we should be going.

Let us also look at the time savings for people. In the early-morning rush, it can take almost an hour to get the nine miles from Cambourne into the centre of Cambridge by car. By rail, that would be reduced to 15 minutes. Bedford to Cambridge by car is 75 minutes—as I discovered to my cost a few weeks ago—and 90 by bus; but, I am told, it takes 35 minutes by train. That is transformational.

I fully accept that this is partly about the future success of Cambridge, because we are struggling hugely to find housing for the people we need to maintain Cambridge’s position driving the UK economy. It is not an unimportant point, although I accept that the location of that housing will not always necessarily appeal to everyone. Cambridge housing is hugely expensive; we all know the figures. Development pressures on my city are intense, and we have an acute shortage of people. Ironically, those are not necessarily the world-leading people but all the people we need to run the basic services. Even the best scientists in the world require their lunches, and offices that are cleaned and maintained, and we are struggling to find those people for lower-paid jobs. We therefore need affordable housing.

I accept the point that house prices do not necessarily always conform to the economic models that some people would like to propose, but we need housing that is available via quick, reliable and environmentally sustainable transport links. Those points have long been made by the leaders of Cambridge City Council, Lewis Herbert and Anna Smith.

In addition, the project would begin to open up prospects for more jobs in high-quality, environmentally sustainable communities along the arc. That is an important point. If we are building these new communities, it must not be about just a developer’s charter; they have to be the kind of communities that will attract the people who will be part of our future—a success in both Cambridge and Oxford.

I accept that there will always be debates about the economic theories of how development works and what the drivers are, but I am pretty convinced that this must be the way forward, and not just along the arc. As others, including Eastern Powerhouse, have outlined, it potentially unlocks further opportunities to the east as well.

I will conclude by making some points about the economic significance of and for Cambridge. The region already adds more than £110 billion to the UK economy every year, and the Cambridge sub-region is a major contributor to the Treasury. Frankly, reinvesting some of that to improve the local quality of life is hardly a unreasonable demand. Cambridge and Oxford are world leaders in venture capital investment, with hugely important research and development sites.

I believe that East West Rail can help to unlock the physical constraints that are currently a real challenge, and help us to get the people we need to remain in our world leadership position. There is strong support for the line from the local authorities and the business community; indeed, I was struck by a recent briefing from the business-led organisation Cambridge Ahead, because this was one of its top priorities. I know that when Government support seemed to be wobbling a while ago—I think we heard a characterisation of that earlier—the University of Cambridge was among the organisations that were particularly concerned about the prospect of the line not going ahead. I am glad that the wobbling seems to have settled, that we have a Minister who is firm in his intentions, and that the current version of this Government seem to understand the significance of the project.

I end where I began: there will always be arguments over routes and local impact, but I urge people to step back, look at the bigger picture and get this electrified railway in place.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir Mark, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on securing it. We have had many discussions about this issue over the years, including with my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). My constituency is literally in between the constituencies of Cambridge and North East Bedfordshire —they border mine on either side—and both Members’ excellent speeches raised both the pros and the cons of East West Rail, which affects my constituency.

My job is to represent the views of my constituents, which are very split. There are those who are massively in favour. Cambourne, which the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned, is the only town in my constituency that will be affected by East West Rail, and the people there are very frustrated at how long it takes to get into Cambridge city. A lot of them work there, and it can them an hour to get there on the train. A station is being built at Cambridge South, which the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), visited recently. It will take the people of Cambourne 11 minutes to get there, and 14 minutes to get to Cambridge Central, which will be transformative for their lives. The business groups and the university are in favour of the new line, and they regularly write to me about their support for it.

On the other hand, there are villages along the line where it is all downside and no upside, such as Haslingfield, Harston, the Eversdens, Hauxton and so on. They will suffer a railway line going right through them, and probably the worst affected will be Highfields Caldecote, where the rail line will clip the corner of the village. The housing being built there now will presumably have to be knocked down. I had a very impassioned email from Jason Western, who runs the Fortitude Fitness Centre, which is an outdoor assault course. He has built it up over 20 years, and the railway line will go right the way through it, affecting a lot of jobs. I can completely understand the distress that it will cause to people like that.

I want to address whether the East West Rail line is needed at all. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire made so many good points that there is not a huge amount I can add, but I also want to raise some of the main issues. Since being elected as an MP, I have been in discussion with the Government about whether the line is needed, and there have been various wobbles. I was told at one point that it had been cancelled and that we were just awaiting the announcement. I was awaiting the announcement, which did not come, and now it has been re-announced. That was because the calculation at the time was done under the Green Book methodology—the standard transport methodology, which my hon. Friend referred to—which produces benefit-cost ratios of just 0.27. That is astonishingly poor—so poor that we would never build a transport project like that. However, East West Rail has come up with a new methodology—the “theory of change”, which he referred to. It is not from the Green Book but from the Magenta Book, and it talks about the impact of the line on overall growth in the area. The project has certainly mutated from helping people to travel more quickly from Cambourne to Cambridge, to helping to supercharge growth in the area.

I do not know quite where it fits in my hon. Friend’s ranking, but I know that the growth of housing in South Cambs over the last 20 years has been about three times the national average, or maybe even higher. In the district of South Cambs, there are three new towns. I laugh when my colleagues complain about a new town or 500 houses, because I have tens of thousands of new houses in my constituency. There are already plans to build 57,000 new houses over the next 20 years, which is as many as in Cambridge city at the moment. We will be doubling the number over the next 20 years—that is what is planned at the moment.

East West Rail’s business case is clearly predicated on massive housing growth. That growth—this is all hidden in the small print, which is so small that I cannot read it but have to interpret it—is based on 23,500 new houses in Cambourne and 19,000 in Tempsford, just south of St Neots. I do not know whether that is in addition to the housing that has already been planned or whether it is included in the previous figures, which makes a huge difference. Such growth has a huge impact on neighbouring villages, such as the gorgeous little village of Knapwell, with only 45 houses. Knapwell is very remote, and its residents are quite understandably worried about being completely swallowed up. As various Members have mentioned, we also have to worry about all the soft infrastructure when building on that extraordinary scale.

One binding constraint is not mentioned at all in the 2,000 pages of East West Rail documentation. Although we have not read it all, we have done word searches. I entered the word “water” to find that it only appears in the name Waterbeach, which is one of the new towns. This is not some sort of made-up environmental issue, whereby we are worried about things in 20 or 50 years’ time; we do not have enough water in South Cambridge to serve the current housing and agriculture. We have an aquifer, so all the water comes in locally and is not piped in from the rest of the country, but we use more each year than is replenished naturally by rainfall, so the water level drops. The ponds, rivers and streams get completely dried out in the summer, which is terrible for wildlife. We are already building all these houses, and the Environment Agency is very concerned that we just do not have enough water, even for the houses on existing projections. I hate to think what those toilets and showers will be like without water.

East West Rail and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs really need to be joined up on water supply. There is a plan at some point to build a reservoir in the Fens and pipe the water down, but the existing planning structure means that it will probably not be for 20 years or more. Will that provide enough water for all this housing? Will we need two new reservoirs? How will it fit in? It really needs to be joined up, because we simply cannot build the housing envisaged in this document without the water supply. We need to think about that.

I would love to see the proper business case. We keep being told that it will come at some point, but who is responsible for its delivery? Is it the Department for Transport, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, or DEFRA? Who will oversee it? Who will be responsible for the spatial plan? Will it be the local authority? There has previously been discussion of development corporations, about which I made my views incredibly clear. I am not opposed to development corporations in all situations, but if they are not about press releases, they are about solving a problem that we cannot solve in any other way. In this case, development corporations should only be used as a solution to an existing problem. I cannot see that that would be the case, so I see no case for development corporations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire mentioned, one of the main concerns locally is the exact design. The 2,000 pages contain no detail about what the railway line will look like: no schematics, no visions, and no drawings or visualisations. It is difficult for the villagers impacted by the line to appreciate how it will affect them. For people living right by this thing, that is incredibly important to know, and makes all the difference. I will come to some of the issues for the individual villages in a minute.

My final main point is about the property blight. I mentioned my constituent who has a fitness centre, but there are lots of people whose properties have been quite severely blighted by the plan, including those who had just moved in when they found that the railway would be built next to them and they could not move away again.

My hon. Friend mentioned that East West Rail had been quite proactive. I have been strongly pushing it to address the blight issue way ahead of the statutory requirement, because the law operates far too much in favour of the infrastructure and not householders. It has introduced a scheme to help people buy properties beforehand if they want to move, but they have to prove they have a reason to move and go through a whole load of hurdles. It should at least be geographically defined, so that if people live within a certain distance of the railway, they can automatically sell their house.

The other issue is the need for additional compensation. Our compensation for compulsory purchase in the UK is not generous enough. The value of a house is not just its market value. My constituent has built up his business over 20 years—who knows the value of that piece of land? I do not know whether he has planning permission, but he will have to end up moving his business, and that is a huge disruption. I know of many homeowners who have built up their houses over 20 years and made it a forever home but will suddenly have to sell it. I urge the Department for Transport to look at giving people 10% or 20% above the value of those houses, because it is not fair on them to say, “You’ve got to move. We’re just going to give you the market rate.”

I want to put on record some of the impacts along the route, because these are questions that my constituents and their various campaign groups are asking. There are lots of campaign groups in my constituency, such as Cambridge Approaches, that are doing valuable and important work on this. I mentioned Highfields Caldecote, where the railway line is literally going through the top end of the village. Is it going under the A428 at that point, which is what East West Rail says? I cannot see how it can do that, because the A428 is pretty sunken underground already. At one point, there was going to be a huge embankment 30 feet in the air. Will it be at that level, or will there be a cutting? If it is under the A428, which is right next to it, there would have to be a cutting. This makes a huge difference to people, but there is no information about it.

In the villages of Great and Little Eversden, will there be an embankment at ground level or a cutting? Again, there is no information about that. The line goes through Chapel Hill, which is an iconic local hill where we get fantastic views across South Cambridgeshire, and it is called Chapel Hill because of its historic significance. Will that be fully cut into, which was the original plan, or will it be tunnelled? I hear lots of suggestions that it will be tunnelled, but without any concrete commitment. If it is tunnelled, would it be cut and covered or bored?

There is a possible road closure between Harlton and Haslingfield. Would that be cut and severed? Would the villages be separated? In Harston, will it go over the A10—the main road into the south of Cambridge—or under it? We have no information about that. Would the junction with the King’s Cross line at Harston be a grade separated junction? Would the railway be taken right up into the air and back down again, or could it be done at grade level, which would have far less impact?

What about the road between Harston and Newton? That is not just a road between the villages; they share shops and a school. The people of the village of Newton—which is next to the village I grew up in and has a fantastic pub, the Queen’s Head—would not be able to go directly to Harston. It would be incredibly disruptive to their lives, and the last plans published said that the road would be severed.

The railway line goes between the villages of Hauxton and Little Shelford, and there is currently a level crossing. Department for Transport guidance now is that there should not be any new level crossings, so how will it be done? There is housing right by it. Will it be tunnelled? Will it be bridged? The people there are really worried that the road will be cut in two.

In Great Shelford, as we get into Cambridge, will four-tracking be required? Will the Long Road bridge have to be taken apart? Will Shepreth branch junction at Great Shelford be grade separated? Again, if it is, that will have a dramatic impact on the village, because the railway line will have to be taken right up into the air and back down. If it is grade separated, how would that be done?

There are so many questions about this, and I wanted to put them on the record. I have been trying to get answers out of East West Rail. It needs to do a lot more work on mitigation; I know that it has done quite a bit already, and I commend it on that, but clearly it has not got there yet. Where full mitigation is not possible, I urge the Government to look at how properly to compensate people for the loss of their homes and businesses, not just at the market rate before the railway was proposed but for the damage, loss of amenity and so on.

Finally, the Government need to review the whole issue of housing. Whatever the arguments for East West Rail in terms of making it easier for people to travel from Cambourne to Cambridge, it cannot be used as an excuse to increase the amount of house building, which is already one of the highest rates in the country, and there is absolutely no water. I urge the Government to address all these topics.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), for securing this debate, which is of great importance to our constituents.

I do not believe that any people along the proposed East West Rail route are impacted as negatively as my constituents. It is for them that I stand in opposition to the route alignment that was confirmed at the end of May. The proposed six-track route will impact at least 66 properties in Bedford, including the demolition of 37 residential properties based on reasonable worst-case railway corridor width and potentially more demolitions as part of the station redevelopment. I am a big supporter of green public transport, so I supported the East West Rail route in principle to bring much needed connectivity and growth opportunities to Bedford, but I have always opposed a route that requires the demolition of homes.

East West Rail has said that it reviewed both a four and a six-track alignment, but preferred the option that, in its view, better serves the wider rail line, although that comes at the expense of homes in Bedford. For years, many of my constituents have been living under the spectre of house demolition. People’s lives have been put on hold. They have been held ransom by a Government who did not care about them and were too incompetent to make a decision. Selling their homes has been an arduous process so far, and I sincerely hope that they are not further distressed by it. We also need to see far more detailed proposals about what is happening to the land around Bedford Hospital for the new Bedford St John’s station.

I hope Ministers will vastly improve their decision-making processes, ensure that East West Rail treats people whose homes are being stolen from them with the respect and compassion they deserve, and ensure they get the necessary support, and fair and timely compensation, for their losses. The base rate for this should be at least in line with that of HS2, plus inflation.

I have always maintained that East West Rail should be electrified or carbon free from day one, and I am disappointed that the Government have not committed to low or zero-emissions rail. It is outrageous that they are even thinking about a new rail project that is not powered by green technology. I hope the Minister will commit today to a green East West Rail, which will be vital if the Government have any chance of meeting their net zero targets.

I am disappointed that East West Rail has still not published a formal business case. The strategic case and the technical report amount to no more than a glossy corporate dream. There is no detail. We all know that the eastern region is one of the most under-invested places, so of course the growth potential is significant, but citing The Economist as recognising that growth potential as a strategic case is not good enough. We need a proper business case. I question why it has not materialised so far and why we are expected to wait another year to see it. It should be done before the fact, not after. We do not want another HS2 on our hands, with chaos and spiralling costs because we forged ahead with unsound plans before due diligence was complete.

I hope the Rail Minister will do more today to prove the business case for East West Rail, and I hope that business case includes the concerns of Bedford businesses about the potential for disruption and loss of trade that building works would cause. These proposals will rip the heart out of strong and vibrant communities in my constituency. These are people’s homes. Families have been living in turmoil for years, and now their worst fears have been realised. To many who responded to the last consultation, including myself, it feels like we have not been heard. There are lots of words in the consultation response to say, “We listen to people’s concerns,” but nothing has changed. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment today that if the majority of the residents respond in opposition to the plans in the statutory consultation, the Government will listen and not approve the proposal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I extend my gratitude to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for securing this important debate. It is clear that the debate has allowed Members from both sides to diligently voice their concerns on behalf of their constituents, and I commend their passion in ensuring that the voices of local people are heard. I hope the Minister has been listening intently and will address the questions posed to him clearly and transparently.

Despite being the Member for Slough, I am not stranger to Cambridge or Oxford, having studied at both universities, and I appreciate the importance of joining these two great cities by rail. More recently, I have had the pleasure of visiting Winslow station. I have also spoken to East West Rail in Milton Keynes, and visited some excellent companies in Milton Keynes that are local to this project, including on the Aylesbury spur, which would no doubt enhance the Bedford to Cambridge connection. Indeed, the line runs through some of the most productive and fastest growing towns and cities. The area supports over 2 million jobs and adds over £110 billion to the economy every year.

As shadow Rail Minister, my support for better rail connections should come as no surprise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) eloquently explained, connecting our great towns and cities through rail links has been proven time and again to provide more opportunities, bolster local economies, unite communities and address the pressing climate crisis. I will always be an advocate for investing in our rail network to make it work for passengers, local communities and the rail industry. That is why it is so important to address the concerns laid out today in order to progress with the project in a way that benefits local people, businesses and passengers.

Putting it plainly, we should not have such limited public transport along this route. Currently, travel from Bedford to Cambridge is restricted to an hour and a half bus service. With the new connection, that is cut to a mere 35 minutes. Quicker journey times, emissions slashed by up to 76% and pressure taken off local roads: the benefits of rail are clear. Those within commuting distance will be increased, with a wider pool of talent for businesses and universities, increasing jobs and opportunities. No wonder, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge again explained to us eloquently, that the top 50 employers in Cambridge have written to the Government in support of the scheme. The aim of the project—to deliver people a better and more convenient way to travel locally—must be maintained alongside local input, consultation and co-operation, not without it.

As hon. Members have outlined, the line covers an area that is going through a great deal of change and growth. This period of flux will undoubtedly mean that significant decisions will be made on infrastructure. Increasing the number of services to meet the existing and growing demand in the region is vital. Failure to provide Government funding to ensure that these needs are met is simply unacceptable. Across our country we have seen people struggle to get GP appointments, a place at their local school or on to the property ladder, and that is exacerbated in areas of high growth and development, as has been highlighted by hon. Members today. That is why progress on the project should be completed alongside public consultation, with local authorities and local people ensuring that decisions are made to benefit the communities who live in those areas.

I feel like a broken record when I say that progress on the project has been characteristically slow, as with countless other rail projects on this Government’s watch that we have debated in the main Chamber and in Westminster Hall. Just last year, the project was rated as “red” by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s delivery confidence assessment, which noted that the later stages of the project “appear unachievable”.

The National Infrastructure Commission, no less, recently commented:

“The region presents a significant growth opportunity for the UK but this will be missed if long term certainty is not provided.”

It seems that the Government are lagging behind in all areas. We must build a network for the future, but just 2.2 km of electrified track was added to our rail network last year, while other European nations and others around the world have been full steam ahead—no pun intended—on full electrification. Why has the Minister not insisted on full electrification for the new route, as has been highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Cambridge, and others? What considerations has he made of the use of trains that are not diesel-only?

As with much of our railway, the Government’s lack of leadership and dithering has impacted progress. The impact of sky-high inflation on building costs, and ongoing Government uncertainty, have not been unique factors in the scheme. Although I am grateful for the Department’s latest update, I am sure the Minister can see that concerns remain. Most notably, perhaps, is the proposed demolition of homes in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, who is a persistently strong champion and voice for his constituents. The Minister should directly address those concerns and meet my hon. Friend to discuss next steps. This is clearly devastating for the affected communities, as in the constituencies of the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) and for North East Bedfordshire.

An updated formal business case should also be published. It is simply unacceptable that we are progressing without that update. Clear and effective consultation is clearly the best way forward. The intentions of the project have always been to serve the local community better, so we must ensure that the final project achieves that. I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that I will personally raise these matters directly with the chief executive of EWR in my planned meeting with her.

EWR must have direct engagement with affected residents to provide all the support that will be needed through the process, particularly regarding compensation and the sale of nearby homes. Will the Minister confirm what action has been taken and what co-ordination there will be with local representatives—Members of Parliament or councillors and authorities—following the recent announcement? Delivering rail projects with local communities’ needs at the very heart should be second nature to a Government in power for 13 years, but sadly they are more chaotic than ever.

We in the region will now have inflicted on us another by-election in which constituents will no doubt deliver a resounding message as to why they will not reward failure. Those that lose out most from Government incompetence are ordinary working people, so I hope the Rail Minister will use this opportunity to address the concerns laid out today. With our railways readying to go full steam ahead, we can ill afford to renege on further infrastructure promises. The people of the north have been betrayed. We cannot allow the people of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire to be betrayed. We cannot allow passengers to be let down once again.

It is a pleasure, Sir Mark, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for securing this important debate on East West Rail from Bedford to Cambridge. I have listened carefully to his representations. As everyone in the debate has said, he makes excellent points and sets us a challenge. I am keen to work with him to address those points.

I have noted the six or seven points he raised. I will go through some this afternoon, but I will write to him on all of them. I want to work with him to ensure the project is delivered in a way that maximises benefits for members of his constituency and the country as a whole. I am well aware that, when it comes to building new railways, some are very much in favour because they benefit directly or indirectly from the delivery of that new railway. We will always call for infrastructure to be delivered before housing. This is an opportunity where that can be delivered.

Of course, there are those whose lives are directly impacted and blighted by railways, who suffer as a result of the build. I have every sympathy with them, and I am keen to work with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to minimise that and to give as much information, clarity and frankness in the process as we can. I say that as someone whose family lives in Buckingham and is well aware of the impact of HS2. “I get it,” is what I want to say this afternoon.

Let me speak a little about the project and then go into detail as I go along. The East West Rail project will improve the UK economy, supporting ambitions for the Oxford to Cambridge region, to add £103 billion extra gross value added by 2050, securing the UK’s future as a world leader in science and technology. East West Rail will improve connectivity and ensure growth is spread across the region as a whole. The route update announcement, which was mentioned, was laid before us on 26 May, and set out the preferred route alignment between Bedford and Cambridge. That would serve new stations at Tempsford and Cambourne, and approach Cambridge from the south, enabling services to call at the new Cambridge South station and to serve the world-leading biomedical campus. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) mentioned, I was at the site a couple of weeks ago. It is absolutely fantastic; people are incredibly excited about what this railway will deliver through not just better connectivity but allowing more jobs to flow to the campus, enabling it to succeed and to take on the world’s finest. I am very excited to have been able to announce the funding.

The route update announcement is a milestone that reaffirms the Government’s commitment to the project, along with funding of £1.3 billion to deliver the first connection stage of East West Rail between Bicester and Bletchley. It is part of our national commitment to unlock transformative growth within the globally renowned Oxford-Cambridge hub of science, research and technology. It will transform connectivity for residents and businesses in addition to supporting economic growth and local housing plans. Again, I acknowledge the challenge that housing can deliver in that particular part of the country. The support from Cambridge University, biopharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Oxford University science park and local enterprise partnerships across the route demonstrates the confidence that key stakeholders and businesses have in the benefits of East West Rail.

With every project at this scale, important decisions must be made to optimise and maximise the benefits it can provide. The proposal to build new stations at Tempsford and Cambourne will enable communities to grow, provide opportunities to improve biodiversity and give people increasing access to green spaces, significantly outweighing the benefits that a St Neots station could provide. As I have stated, I recognise that the proposals will have an impact on some homes and businesses. In particular, I understand the concerns of residents immediately to the north of Bedford station.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) mentioned a six-track rather than a four-track proposal. That is being put in place to regulate the disruptive performance on the existing Midland main line, as well as to mitigate congestion and provide options for future growth. It is an example of where we are building for the future, not just through East West Rail, but to deal with a spot of disruption that already exists. By going to the six-track proposal, we will deliver better infrastructure and a better service on both of those lines, though I do recognise that it has more of an impact on residents.

For local residents who are affected, East West Rail Company has launched a need to sell scheme, designed to support residents who have a compelling need to sell their property but are unable to do so other than at a substantially lower value because of the railway. On the point made by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) that I should meet the hon. Member for Bedford, I did that very recently. We discussed the case of one of his constituents and were able to talk about a solution. I continue to make myself available to all hon. Members on behalf of their constituents who are impacted.

East West Rail Company has also proposed to provide a new relocated station building at Bedford Midland, which will offer opportunities for local authorities to partner with East West Rail to deliver a destination station, if supported by third-party funding. Alongside that, the existing Bedford St Johns station will be relocated so that it is closer to Bedford Hospital, providing better connectivity for patients, hospital staff and visitors. Proposals for East West Rail will also mean a significant investment in the Marston Vale line between Bletchley and Bedford to provide a step change in the frequency of services.

As the House and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire will know, East West Rail Company is holding public information events to answer the questions that have been raised by Members on behalf of their constituents. It is also meeting with stakeholders along the line of route. I will take some of the questions that have been posed, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire about the design stage, and get responses to them.

A statutory consultation is planned for the first half of next year, in which the next stage of technical and operational design proposals will be presented alongside plans to mitigate any associated environmental impacts. East West Rail Company has committed to delivering a 10% biodiversity net gain across the entire project, and traction options such as full electrification along the whole line of route are currently being reviewed.

Phase 1, which goes from Oxford over to Bletchley, is a mix of an existing line and one that once was a railway line. Phase 2, from Bletchley to Bedford, is an existing line. In that sense, electrification is a more difficult challenge, because bridges and other infrastructure are already in place and would have to be significantly changed. Where we have built new bridges and infrastructure, we have done so with electrification for the future in mind, so there is that pathway available to it. Of course, we are looking toward hybrid options in future as far as trains are concerned, which would enable a better, decarbonised line of route. I know all hon. Members have mentioned that point.

The business case was also referenced. As is standard for a project of this size, a final business case will be put forward once planning consent is secured. Before then, a development consent order application will be prepared in accordance with the Planning Act 2008. East West Rail demonstrates the Government’s commitment to supporting growth and improving connectivity for people and business across the Oxford and Cambridge region.

Let me come to some of the points that were raised—my hon. Friends worked hard to raise as many as they could. The first question was, will I walk the line of route? I am not sure whether that is an invitation to walk the entire line of route or selected parts of it, but I am certainly able to say yes to the former—sorry, I should say the latter. I should get that right for Hansard. Yes, I will walk parts of the line of route so that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire can show me the areas that are impacted. Indeed, we did something similar when we looked at the options of coming into Cambridge from the north or going from Cambridge to the south, and I will of course do that in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

My hon. Friend mentioned the new Mayor, Tom Wootton. I met him and he laid out his arguments as to why he believes the line of route should come through the south rather than the north of Bedford. I have said I will write back to him to explain our thinking behind that and I am very happy to continue to liaise with him. We need to ensure that our case is the strongest case and cannot be rebutted, and that it is not only open and transparent but subject to challenges that will make it more robust. I am very keen to do that.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the National Audit Office will conduct an inquiry. We can consider that option. I always enjoyed working with the NAO when I was Chair of the Transport Committee; it has a lot of value to add when it comes to ensuring projects are built to time and cost. External assurance is provided by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, whose next review is expected before the statutory consultation. It works as an external review body for the project.

My hon. Friend asked whether I will instruct East West Rail to release the maps. We can check what further information and detail can be provided. East West Rail does not yet have a detailed design for every single area, but where it has the details, it will publish them. It has done so in the Poets area of Bedford. I am very keen that we do that at the earliest opportunity to give residents and businesses impacted by the line as much clarity and detail as possible, so I will look at that point for my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend’s fifth point was about writing to property owners about the current corridor. East West Rail has written to property owners about the route update announcement and will engage with them further in the lead-up to the statutory consultation. Again, I am committed to ensuring that more detail is provided. I will come back to my hon. Friend on all those points and the one or two that I have not addressed because I have not had the time.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) asked how much money has been spent on the Oxford-to-Cambridge road that was proposed and then stopped, and how many officials are still working on it. I can tell him that £28 million was spent on the development project, and there are no officials working on it right now. I hope he is impressed with that transparency and immediacy.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire asked who will be responsible for producing the business case. It is East West Rail in partnership with the DFT. We will work closely with the Treasury to make sure that is properly done in the manner that one would expect. There was talk of the theory of change exercise. That methodology is validated by the Government. We have previously discussed the fact that the Green Book is not particularly good at taking into account regeneration and decarbonisation. Changes have now been made; I welcome them because they mean that transport, and certainly rail projects, score much higher. We will of course ensure that that is rigorous, and that the preparation is transparent. I note my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area from his academic background and his business work. I am keen to work with him to ensure the business case works and is in the right form. He can take that assurance.

The hon. Member for Slough visited Winslow. I did so too, and I was actually brought up a few miles away. I am a supporter of this project because when I went to the further education college in Aylesbury, I used to go over that bridge every day, and there was nothing going on underneath it. Now, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a station that will be ready to be opened shortly, and off the back of that we have the housing and the school. The secondary school in Winslow closed down. I was at secondary school in Buckingham, and all the pupils had to be bussed over. That no longer has to happen, and it is the railway that has allowed that to be built. Winslow is a good example of the fact that, if we build the infrastructure, the rest follows.

I am keen to work with the hon. Member for Slough, because it is clear that he supports East West Rail and wants it delivered. I support his support, as it were. He talked about the electrification miles that have been built, but I have to correct the record. In the past 13 years, while we have been in government, 1,200 miles of railway has been electrified. In the previous 13 years, when the Labour party was in power, the figure was a paltry 63 miles. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not wish to give me any lessons about how to electrify lines, because we are doing that.

I know the hon. Gentleman is going to tell me that he will do a lot more in the future, but the trouble is that we only have Labour’s record to judge him on, not his future deeds. Go on, have a go.

I would like to rebut what the Minister just said. I referred to what has been electrified in the past year, which is a mere 2.2 km of rail line. The Minister is right to point to the Conservative-led Governments’ record in the past 13 years, but having been Chair of the Transport Committee, he will also be aware that the previous Labour Government’s main priority was to invest tens of billions of pounds in our rolling stock to get rid of the old, inefficient trains that we inherited from the previous Conservative Government after 18 years of grinding public transport to a halt. Having got the rolling stock back up to full speed, the last decade has been a lost decade for electrification, which is what other European Governments have done. That is why I said that the Minister and the Conservative Government have been failing on electrification.

I am impressed with that argument, actually, that rather than electrifying lines—I am a big supporter of that, and we want to and will do more, as we have done 1,200 miles whereas, as I pointed out, in the previous 13 years Labour had done 63—there was a priority focus on rolling stock. That really is pulling the other one. We have been doing both during that whole process. If the hon. Member has been on an Azuma train, he will know full well that they have been delivered under our—

Of course, Sir Mark. I am happy to do so, but the invention was so long that I thought you might give me the grace of replying to it fully. I think the point has been made.

Overall, we are committed to the project of East West Rail. The hon. Member for Cambridge set out the case that was recognised—

I will make a little more progress, then I will perhaps give way one final time.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire mentioned the housing challenges in the area. I recognise that, because, having family and being brought up between Oxford and Cambridge, I see that every single time I go back. He is right to prod me on the figures. In my own constituency, we have an 85% area of outstanding natural beauty. I would like to see more development, so that we have the housing, infrastructure and resources where I am, and spread that load more equally.

I recognise the points raised by most hon. Members that the housing will potentially impact their constituencies. I appreciate that, but I will come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge. We must ensure that cities such as Oxford and Cambridge can compete not just in this country, but internationally. It is absolutely vital that the scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators there who are coming up with extraordinary cures, which will help people not just in this country but around the world, have the support to do that. At the moment, they do not have a workforce. The idea of this line is to deliver a workforce to Oxford and Cambridge, to use Milton Keynes and allow towns such as Winslow to grow further and get schools in place. In my view, it is a good example of rail delivering for the regional economy. I truly believe that it will do that but, as I say, I know the impacts and I understand them. I want to work with hon. Members across the piece on behalf of their constituents so that they feel more reassured, understand what is going on, get the detail and reassurance and, where needed, get compensation, and so that we make the project work for them as well. I will take one final intervention, then I will conclude.

The Minister mentioned a statutory consultation earlier that will take place from January next year. My constituents think that it is a tick-box exercise; they think that the decision has already been made. If the Minister wants to prove my constituents wrong, will he commit today—I made this point in my speech as well—that if the majority of people taking part in the statutory consultation go against these plans, he will ensure that he puts the proposals on hold? Let him prove my constituents wrong, if he can.

That is not a commitment I can give. As we know, those who tend to write back on consultations tend to be the most affected and are therefore the most troubled by the issue. That is not the way that we would run a consultation. We have of course set out a preferred line of route and the ambition that this railway can deliver, but I can give the hon. Member the assurance—I say this as a former Chair of a Select Committee—that consultations run in my Department under my name will be run properly. We will look at all the responses that come back and at where we can make improvements because residents have come up with really good ideas that will be a win for everyone. I expect to look at those closely and work with those suggestions. It will not be a tick-box exercise for as long as I am responsible for the project; I can give the hon. Member that assurance.

I will wrap up. As I stated, I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire and his constituents to continue to use the opportunities provided through the East West Rail company’s community events and its forthcoming consultation to provide feedback on the plans. I will conclude by thanking you, Sir Mark, and all those who have spoken with passion and expertise. I give my commitment that the Department for Transport will work closely with all the MPs who are represented and have concerns. I hope to assure those who have the most striking concerns and deliver for those who believe, like me, that East West Rail can be a power for good in the region.

I call Richard Fuller to wind up, cognisant of the fact that there is likely to be a vote at around 4 o’clock.

I will try not to detain you for 10 minutes, Sir Mark, but we will see. I thank the Minister, the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) —and all hon. Members who have spoken, plus the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who is no longer in her place but who made useful interventions. We certainly had a diversity of views, but one thing that united all those speaking from the Back Benches was that diesel is a non-starter on this railway. Until the Minister and the Government resolve that issue, they are pushing a plan that will further erode public support.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made the crucial point that the goal of this investment is to try to build on the strength of Cambridge. We are lucky to have academic, technical and innovative skills in and around Cambridge, in the science parks and the university. That hub of activity has a national benefit for all of us. I completely agree with him, including about the importance of being able to provide accommodation for people and support for that potential to be fulfilled. East West Rail is not the smartest way to do that. There are greener, better alternatives that use public money better to achieve that. If we could engage on that rather than blindly going down this route of “We had already thought of it 10 years ago so we have to keep thinking about it”, we would get a better answer for Cambridge.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) made the crucial point that inadequate attention has been paid to the water supply in the East Anglia region. This is not a marginal concern, but a substantial one. Like my hon. Friend, I have spoken to the experts in this area about their plans going out 20 or 30 years. Even with all the effort they can make with a new reservoir and with desalination plants, we will run out of water in the eastern region unless there are other additional plans. We have to bear that in mind before the potential for more housing can be taken any further.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) spoke with great passion about members in his constituency, which I know well, who have been given a notification, and about the need for compensation and support. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire emphasised how in this country we are not very good at managing these issues for people when it comes to quantity, the process of reassessing the value of properties or timeliness. It was kind of the CEO of East West Rail to say today that she will see whether things can be done. If the Minister took her up on that, that might help those people. As the hon. Member for Bedford said, there is new additional uncertainty about the new station at the hospital and what that will mean for his constituents and the town of Bedford.

The shadow Minister made some strong points. I shall not pick up on all of them. I always love it when I hear someone say they really like something. The shadow Minister said 50 businesses had written to the Government to say that they supported East West Rail. It is always easy for people to support something when they do not have to pay for it. Would those 50 businesses write the same letter if we said we were going to tax their profits until we made up the shortfall for the taxpayer of £1.5 billion to £3 billion? I wonder whether their support would be quite so evocative if they had to pay for it. In the good old days, people used to say, “I’m going to stand on my own two feet. I’m going to pay for things myself.” Perhaps the Minister should look at ways in which the shortfall could be reduced for the taxpayer by charging the businesses that say they are going to benefit. I would be interested in his thoughts about that one.

On the updated business case, again, the shadow Minister talked eloquently about the support he had for rail projects. Well, at the moment this rail project has a benefit-cost ratio of, basically, 26p in the pound to 52p in the pound. I wonder whether that is Labour’s assumption of good value for money to the taxpayer. Is that the benchmark? If we can anticipate Labour spending that £28 billion a year, that would mean a £20 billion to £50 billion a year loss to the taxpayer. I really think that Labour needs to sharpen its pencils on what is a beneficial return and not give such an easy pass if the benefit-cost ratio of East West Rail is as low as that.

I am grateful to the Minister for his responses, and for his willingness to walk the entire route. I am happy to say that we need him only for part of it, and we will find a date. He said that the announcement is a milestone; I fear it is a millstone. I do not think that this is the right way to unlock growth, but I understand that my view differs from that of the Government. It was disappointing that there was no more pressure from the Minister on East West Rail to be open on the business case. As many Members have said, there is no clarity about the business case, and people having the opportunity to discuss it openly would help with greater transparency, which is why I issued my challenge to the chief executive: I am happy to debate the matter with her in my constituency.

The Minister also talked kindly about the impact of housing growth, and I am grateful for that. He talked about his own constituency, which has a large number of areas of outstanding natural beauty. I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire have a significant number of areas with greenbelt protection, but we in Bedfordshire love our countryside too. It may not be classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and it may not be protected by the greenbelt, but we love it and want to protect it. We do not want a railway and more housing driven through it. The East West Rail announcement has sadly taken us backwards. It has left too many unresolved issues, and too much controversy and uncertainty. Much more work needs to be done before it gets any support from me.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Bedford to Cambridge section of East West Rail.