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 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.