East West Rail Route Consultation: North East Bedfordshire

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:53 pm on 28th June 2021.

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Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Minister of State (Department for Transport) 7:53 pm, 28th June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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