Council’s live-streamed EWR briefing allows public scrutiny of eight potential routes

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In an effort to provide increased transparency around the East West Rail (EWR) project, the findings of a study into eight potential routes were presented at a meeting of councillors and key stakeholders last night (Tuesday), with the meeting being live-streamed to the public.

With an introduction by Mayor Tom Wootton (Conservative), the briefing was presented by Bedford Borough Council’s chief planning officer, Jon Shortland.

You can watch a recording of the briefing here.

The reports were commissioned by Bedford Borough Council to evaluate the routes proposed by campaign groups including Bedford for a Reconsultation (BFare) and British Regional Transport Association (BRTA) and Route E, currently proposed by EWR.

The commissioned reports evaluated each route against 13 distinct criteria, encompassing various factors such as environmental considerations, potential demolitions, car parking provisions, and alignment with the Local Plan 2040. 

Each of the eight routes assessed in the briefing on 6 February 2024. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Each of the eight routes assessed in the briefing on 6 February 2024. Image: Bedford Borough Council

The discussion also delved into the four tracks vs six tracks debate, which poses the greatest threat to homeowners in the Poets Area.

Should six tracks be required, a number of homes in the Poets area would need to be demolished and several households have been living under this threat since it was announced in March 2021.

Read: Residents left ‘reeling’ ahead of next stage of East West rail consultation

The reports demonstrated that there would be a significant economic benefit for the Borough should the project go ahead, but none of the eight routes stood out as being the most preferable.

Mayor Tom Wootton and chief planning officer Jon Shortland
Mayor Tom Wootton and chief planning officer Jon Shortland

Describing EWR’s former consultation process as “really rubbish”, Mayor Wootton said he’s determined to provide the detailed reports to EWR at their meeting next week in the hope that they will reconsider all of the available options.

Following the meeting, Mayor Wootton said: “These reports provide invaluable insights into the complex considerations surrounding East West Rail.

“While there is no definitive winner among the proposed routes, the economic potential of the project for Bedford is significant. It’s imperative that we continue to engage in thorough analysis and dialogue to ensure the best outcome for our community.”

Criteria for each of the proposed routes. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Criteria for each of the proposed routes. Image: Bedford Borough Council

To reassure residents, he said that as discussions on East West Rail progress, Bedford Borough Council remains committed to transparency, evidence-based decision-making, and constructive collaboration with all stakeholders.

What the councillors said…

Cllr Colleen Atkins and Cllr Zara Layne (Labour, Harpur ward) thanked Jon Shortland and the external officers for their work on the project, saying: “As representatives for an area in which homes are marked for demolition we welcome any viable suggestions that could be a reasonable alternative for EWR’s current plans.

“We are mindful that residents are already living with uncertainty and hope that a timely resolution is sought and will continue to fight against demolitions.”

They said they would welcome an invitation to the meetings the Mayor said were planned with residents in Harpur ward.

As a councillor whose constituents live very close to the River Great Ouse, Cllr Ben Foley (Green Party, Greyfriars ward) was most concerned about flood risks associated with the proposed routes, and reiterated his commitment to the four track solution.

“There was talk in the meeting of a route for the new railway south of the river, following the route of the old railway through the town. I asked about the evidence about flooding.

Councillor Ben Foley. Image: Ben Foley
Councillor Ben Foley. Image: Ben Foley

“We were told there was no clear-cut evidence the council has, either way, on that question. By contrast EWR has told us such a route would increase flood risk.

“Residents of homes already at risk of flooding close to Commercial Road can’t afford any increased risk.

“The meeting has left me more worried than ever that other councillors will gamble on the uncertainty. I have always opposed all demolitions of homes to build EWR, but just avoiding demolitions is not enough. We must not risk causing flooded homes to avoid demolitions.”

Bedford LibDems leader, Cllr Henry Vann said it was “surreal” that some of the routes proposed “go through [Mayor Wootton’s] leisure village or suite”.

He said: “Ultimately what the reports show is what we have always said: a connection to Bedford’s main station is vital, you do not need six tracks or demolitions going north, and no route is without impact that needs to be minimised.

“As we know various southern routes threaten Priory Country Park and have a big impact on villages such as Elstow, Shortstown, Cotton End and Willington.

“We still don’t know what route the Mayor favours, but it is strange that only some groups were invited yesterday and others excluded from the invitation.”

What the campaigners said…

Mike Barlow, of the BFare campaign group opposed to Route E, said he wanted to see more evidence and commitment of the Mayor’s election promise that he would “robustly contest Route E”.

“So far it seems that his planning department is insistent on selling the perceived (but unsubstantiated) benefits of Route E and acting as little more than another mouthpiece for EWR,” he told the Bedford Independent

BFARe and Protect Poets protesters at a recent 'protest' walk last month, at the proposed northern alignment of the East West Rail route. Image: BFARe/Facebook
BFARe and Protect Poets protesters at a’protest’ walk at the proposed northern alignment of the East West Rail route. Image: BFARe/Facebook

“I think the biggest travesty in this is that the council is effectively backing the demolition of the homes in Poets.  You can’t support both Route E and reject the demolitions – the two things are incompatible.  If you support Route E – you support demolitions and you support 10 years of development devastation to the town and unnecessarily ripping up 7km of extra countryside.

“It’s time that party political pettiness is put aside and all Councillors do what is right for residents by opposing demolitions and Route E.”

The British Regional Transport Association (BRTA), formerly the English Regional Transport Association, has proposed a “middle option” via the old route in the St John’s area of Bedford.

Richard Pill of BRTA told the Bedford Independent: “Tonight’s presentation had many technical details and the whole process is caught up in varied parties procedures and the fact of a 2024 General Election, a lack of money generally and the timescales which are varied for all the different bits involved.

“[BRTA] started formal advocacy of the Oxford-Bedford-Cambridge Railway reopening in some form from 1986 onwards and rails east of Bedford via St John’s 1987. It has taken far too long and been a political and bureaucratic football.

“It is time to go for a rail choice, as new trunk road upgrades will deliver lots more traffic to urban areas, causing congestion, blight, pollution and mayhem.

“One locomotive can haul about 14 juggernaut lorries and hundreds of people. In 100 miles north of London, there are a lot of east-west roads steadily being upgraded, but no east-west railway. It is time to take the bull by the horns and make the railway a reality.”

He concluded, “I hope to use it in my lifetime.”

What the MPs said…

Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford and Kempston said having listened carefully to the Mayor and Jon Shortland, chief planning officer, it was clear that all of the proposed alternative routes also face significant challenges.

He said: “I look forward to reading the detailed analysis to see how these challenges would be overcome.

“However, I am concerned that the Mayor does not appear to believe any of the alternative routes are viable or strong enough to suggest that residents should not continue with the Need to Sell scheme.

“This would to me suggest that the Mayor believes that EWR are likely to maintain their current route as indeed their decision to proceed with the statutory consultation today despite knowing that the Mayor was presenting tonight would suggest. 

“The worst thing for residents is more uncertainty and I’m pleased that Councillor Zara Layne raised this issue in the meeting, and despite the Mayor’s lack of answer I am pleased that Officer Jon Shortland confirmed that residents should still proceed in accessing the Need to Sell scheme if applicable.

“I will continue to push for more clarity from East West Rail and the Government and will work on pragmatic routes forward on this subject.”

Richard Fuller, MP for North East Bedfordshire did not respond in time for our deadline.

The full reports will be published today (7 February) on the Borough Council’s website here.

 
 
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