The deadline for responses to the current consultation on East West Rail should be extended, according to Bedford's Conservative Councillors. The recent increase in COVID infections across the Borough has called into question the viability of a special meeting of the Council, where residents and pressure groups concerned about the choice of route, are due to discuss their concerns with Councillors.
Council meetings must now be held 'in-person' and can no longer be held virtually, as the legislation expired in May and was not renewed. However, the rise in COVID infections locally and the expected large number of members of the public attending such a meeting, creates the possibility of a 'super-spreader' event. This is a matter of concern to both Council Officers and Councillors across all parties.
The strength of opposition to the selected route (E) means that there is an increasing demand for public debate and scrutiny of the Borough Council's own proposals on East West Rail. The Council cannot use the unfortunate circumstances of increasing local COVID rates to deny the public a proper say. The current deadline for responses to the consultation is 9th June, leaving a very small window for the Council to meet and consult residents, take note of their views, act on any concerns and then submit its proposals to East West Rail.
Bedford Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes, has therefore called on the Mayor to request the Transport Minister instructs East West Rail to extend the consultation by 6-8 weeks. This would then allow an in-person Council meeting to take place when COVID infections are decreasing again. Residents would then have the opportunity to question the Council on its own submission to the consultation and raise their concerns about the implications of the current route option.
Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes, commented:
"I have two big concerns: first of all, the health and safety of Bedford Borough residents must be a priority. Therefore, the proposed 2nd June council meeting cannot be held in public, to ensure we don't create the possibility of a super-spreader event. Equally, residents and East West Rail pressure groups must not be cheated out of the possibility of being able to question their elected representatives. The Mayor and Borough Council must not be allowed to shut down debate and scrutiny because of a looming deadline and a local increase in COVID. The Borough's previous consultation submission was shrouded in secrecy and this must not be allowed to happen again.
Consultation must also be meaningful and there must be time for proper and open public debate and for Councillors to reflect on residents' concerns and if necessary change the Council's own approach. Otherwise the public will see that the Mayor and Council are just going through the motions and have no intent to change their current proposals.
I have asked that, as a matter of urgency, the Mayor requests from the Transport Minister and East West Rail, a consultation extension of 6-8 weeks. This would hopefully allow an in-person meeting of Councillors and public, where those with legitimate concerns about the East West Rail route can challenge and question their elected representatives. If the Mayor does not call for an extension of the consultation it will show, once again that he is not concerned with residents’ views.”