East West Rail Route Consultation: North East Bedfordshire

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:37 pm on 28th June 2021.

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Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 7:37 pm, 28th June 2021

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.