The current deadline for responses to the latest East West Rail (EWR) Co consultation is due to end on 9 June. However, local councillors, Mayor Dave Hodgson and Bedford’s MP have urged EWR and the transport minister to extend the deadline to allow for face-to-face meetings.
As Bedford currently has the third-highest rates of Covid-19 cases in the country, it has called into question the viability of a special meeting of the Council on 2 June, 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 current deadline for responses to the consultation is 9 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 & Kempston MP, Mohammad Yasin, wrote to East West Rail Company on 27 April to request an extension to the consultation, however he is still waiting for a response.
“The new Covid restrictions placed on Bedford Borough jeopardise the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown measures and therefore puts huge uncertainty over any public, indoor meetings being able to take place in the near future,” he told the Bedford Independent.
“EWR need to respond to my request with this in mind to ensure the public get a reasonable and fair opportunity to have their say.”
Bedford’s Mayor, Dave Hodgson has also raised the question directly to EWR but Bedford Conservative Group Leader, Cllr Graeme Coombes, has called on the Mayor to go straight to the transport minister to instruct East West Rail to extend the consultation by six to eight weeks.
It is hoped that Covid cases would have decreased sufficiently by then to give residents 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 2 June council meeting cannot be held in public, to ensure we don’t create the possibility of a super-spreader event.
“Equally, residents and EWR 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.”
Cllr Coombes said that for the consultation to be meaningful it must allow time for a proper and open debate and for, “councillors to reflect on residents’ concerns and if necessary change the Council’s own approach.
“Otherwise,” he said, “the public will see that the Mayor and Council are just going through the motions and have no intent to change their current proposals.”