The Bedford Conservative Council Group supports the East West Rail (EWR) project in principle and recognises the economic and social benefits that a new rail route to Bedford will bring to the Borough and its residents. The Group also supports a new station for Wixams residents on the Midland Mainline, which it believes is long overdue.
The Group supports the idea that East West Rail should connect directly with Bedford town. However, whilst a decision on a preferred route has now been made by EWR (route E), it is acknowledged that some Councillors oppose a route exiting Bedford to the north, as they believe this option will have a devastating impact on our Bedfordshire villages and prime agricultural land and thus a detrimental effect on the wards and communities that they represent.
The Conservative Group has a number of concerns about the processes followed by the Borough Council in deciding its preferred route and the lack of any democratic input to the selection of a preferred route.
Equally, the Conservative Group believes that the Borough Council has failed to engage sufficiently with residents, Parish Councils and other interest groups on the EWR proposals. This lack of consultation on a major piece of proposed local infrastructure is unacceptable.
We are concerned that there has been little or no discussion by the Borough Council around the important issues of rail freight and potential new housing resulting in the north of the Borough, both of which are interconnected with the EWR project. This lack of transparency around these two important issues, leads us to believe that the Borough Council is actively trying to play down the likely impact of both on communities and parishes in the North East of the Borough.
The Conservative Group encourages all interested parties, residents, communities, Parish Councils and other stakeholders to engage in the consultations being organised by EWR and to make their feelings known. The Group also encourages these same Groups to lobby their Councillors and other elected representatives in support of their concerns.
We believe that proper consultation and scrutiny by the Borough Council needs to take place immediately to ensure that the EWR route best serves the people of Bedford Borough and that any downside or negative consequences of the route chosen are acknowledged and mitigated.
There are therefore 4 key areas that the Conservative Group believes need further immediate attention from the Borough Council:
- Decision making by the Borough Council on its choice of preferred route:
Bedford Borough Council needs to make clear to the public and Councillors, the decision making process for its decision on a preferred route, as submitted to the March 2019 consultation organised by East West Rail. At no point has the Borough’s preferred route been debated or discussed by Full Council and the Borough therefore has no democratic mandate for its preferred route option.
Additionally, whilst a decision on its preferred route has now been made by EWR, the Borough Council needs to have this decision scrutinised and debated by Councillors.
- Public Consultation:
The Borough Council needs to immediately engage with residents and Parish Councils likely to be affected by the chosen route, to hear their concerns and represent those concerns to the East West Rail consortium. It is not sufficient for the Borough or Mayor only to state that residents should respond directly to the latest round of consultation by East West Rail. The Borough must actively engage with its residents on such a major local infrastructure project.
- Rail Freight
Another concern about the Borough Council’s poor record on democratic oversight of its decisions on EWR, is the total absence of discussion on rail freight. The debate thus far has focussed solely on passenger and commuter use of the new rail line. If the use of the EWR route for rail freight is a key part of the financial case for EWR, then further public scrutiny and discussion is needed and the route exiting the town should be reconsidered. The amount of freight, frequency and times of freight trains and the likely noise and environmental impacts of freight trains, need to be made clear to the public and Councillors.
- New Housing:
The EWR report announcing its preferred route (East West Rail Bedford to Cambridge - Preferred Route Option Report) states:
“In its consultation response, Bedford Borough Council noted that by serving Bedford Midland, EWR could support new housing as part of the regeneration of Bedford town centre and potentially opportunities to the north of Bedford, which could be considered as part of the council’s early review of its local plan.” (page 15, para 1.36)
The Conservative Group is concerned that EWR is being used by the Borough Council as a Trojan Horse for placing major development sites across vast swathes of North East Bedfordshire. The Conservative Group views with concern the potential for the Borough Council to be compromised by getting its preferred EWR route only by agreeing to a large housebuilding programme as part of the 1 million homes identified under the OxCam ARC proposals.