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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.