East West Rail: Local political tensions rumble on

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Bedford Station Sign

The second East West Rail Company consultation on the line’s route may have ended on 9 June, but local political tensions over East West Rail continue to rumble on.

A Conservative group motion on 2 June proposed the council lobby for EWR Company to re-consult on route corridors between Bedford and St Neots/Tempsford. It was defeated by 30-11 votes, with only Conservative councillors supporting it.

Councillor Stephen Moon is the Conservative group’s spokesperson on EWR and proposed their 2 June motion.

He confirmed that despite the motion’s defeat, the group continue to want the council to lobby EWR Company to re-consult over route options between Bedford and St Neots/Tempsford.

The latest EWR Company consultation in March-June was based on Route E from the 2019 consultation being the preferred option. Route E proposes that the EWR line travels from Bedford Midlands station in a northeast direction.

U-turn

The Lib Dems claim that the Conservatives’ re-consultation position is a u-turn on support for a route through Bedford.

In 2019, Conservative mayoral candidate Gianni Carafano publicly favoured Route D, which would have also involved the line going via Bedford Midlands Station.

Current Conservative group leader Cllr Graeme Coombes, representing Wilshamstead ward, had advised on social media for Wixams residents to support Routes D/E going through Bedford so progress on Wixam’s long-awaited Thameslink station was not jeopardised.

He also welcomed Route E being confirmed as the preferred route corridor in January 2020.

Cllr Moon acknowledged these public comments but framed them as personal preferences. He said the Conservative group had always held a free vote position on the precise EWR route.

Differing ward interests meant they couldn’t hold an ‘honest, corporate view’.

He clarified that they don’t propose an exact repeat of the 2019 route corridor options, describing it as ‘naive to believe that the southern one to Sandy is a runner’, in an apparent reference to Route C.

Instead, they want a re-look at ‘simply ways of getting to’ between Sandy North and St Neots South from Bedford.

Cllr Moon argued that such a re-consultation would “not take more than a few months because most of the information and data is in” and they don’t propose a re-consultation for the entirety of the Bedford-Cambridge stretch of the line.

The Lib Dems don’t agree. Cllr Michael Headley, who in his role as portfolio holder for finance, risk and welfare covers the brief of railways, said: “A re-consultation would not take months but years.”

“The previous consultation started in 2019 and the Conservatives locally want to wind the clock back to a stage before that.

“It is also very important to understand any re-consultation would involve all options being put back on the table and not just Councillor Moon’s favoured option.”

Cllr Headley also said that the local Conservatives had failed to convince the Conservative government to re-consult based on the 2019 consultation 16 days before this year’s consultation started.

“It’s not us they need to persuade,” said Cllr Headley. “It’s the government of their own party.”

Ill-tempered meeting

The informal full council meeting of 2nd June on EWR was notable for its hostile tone. In the meeting, Cllr Coombes even labelled Mayor Dave Hodgson ‘a charlatan and a fraud’.

Read more: Bitterness, anger, threats and allegations in the air as council debates its East West Rail route response

He accused the mayor of misleading him in a 2019 meeting by stating that a northern route for EWR through Bedford was necessary to avoid the planned Wixams Thameslink station coming under threat.

For his part, Cllr Moon regretted submitting the group’s re-consultation motion a minute before the meeting’s start, conceding the limited time for other councillors to view it was ‘bloody irritating’. He added it wasn’t his intention to have submitted it so close to the meeting.

While blaming the council power structure setting up full council meetings to be more divisive, Cllr Moon also personally regretted the meeting’s tone.

However, Cllr Coombes’ anger over his view of being ‘deliberately misled’ on the implications for Wixams of the different 2019 route options shouldn’t be underestimated.

Cllr Graeme Coombes
Cllr Graeme Coombes, leader of the Bedford Conservative Group

Cllr Moon also attacked Cllr Headley’s ‘contemptuous’ conduct at the 2 June meeting for “sneering and scoffing at the members of the public and their legitimate concerns and to anybody who has the temerity to offer an alternative route”.

Addressing this accusation, Cllr Headley said: “At the 2nd June meeting in my comments I started by saying that I understood the concerns of local residents, especially those directly impacted by the proposed route alignments of East West Rail.

“I have great sympathy for those impacted, but I do not have any tolerance for those putting out misleading or deliberately incorrect information which both the Conservatives and a number of pressure groups have done.

“This was not fair on residents trying to respond to the consultation.”

The four-hour-long 2 June meeting is available to view on YouTube here.

Criticisms of consultation process and Council

Cllr Moon outlined criticisms of the original 2019 consultation process to justify the Conservative group’s position. The core of these included:

  • Changed cost assumptions – following the 2019 consultation, revised cost assumptions made Route E a more attractive cost-effective option than advertised in the consultation.
  • Perceived poor attempts at engagement – lack of public meetings along Route E and 120,000 cards sent out to addresses in the first consultation, compared with 250,000 this year when focused only on one route corridor.
  • Overall engagement response levels – Cllr Moon argued that just 7,000 responses to the 2019 consultation, half of which compiled by the Woodland Trust, underlined the poor engagement process.

At the 2 June meeting, Cllr Moon mentioned that one parish council chair had found that only 20% of postcodes in the parish had received an EWR Company card informing them of the 2019 consultation. He clarified to the Bedford Independent that this was Roxton Parish.

Cllr Moon was also scathing of the council’s handling of its own submission to the 2019 consultation.

Although he accepted the mayor had ‘legitimate authority’ to make the council’s submission an executive decision, he described this and no consultation of affected residents as ‘covert’.

The Conservative group also claimed in April this year the Mayor’s commitment to consult Borough residents before the council’s submission to the latest EWR consultation as a u-turn partly brought about by their councillors. 

The council commissioned outside consultants Kilborn Consulting Ltd to guide their response in 2019.

Cllr Moon said the council had only ever wanted a route through Bedford and not given “any consideration, at all, to alternatives”. Further, an initial report by Kilborn Consulting Ltd said “the better route was to the south” and was “slapped down” by the council.

Kilborn Consulting did produce a draft report for the council in February 2019 titled ‘Preliminary options review’. In this, consideration is given to a Bedford-Cambridge route partly following the former Varsity Line.

This route was assessed as having ‘no insurmountable physical obstacles’. However, it’s identified only as a ‘compromise solution’ if Bedford Midland routes are unacceptable to EWR Company.

In both the draft report and their final report in March 2019, Kilborn Consulting refer repeatedly to an identified objective of the council to have an EWR station ‘in the centre of Bedford’.

Cllr Moon also accused the council of devising its own route in its March 2019 submission to the first consultation “through our wards without telling us”, adding the Conservative group first saw the council’s submission in Autumn 2019.

“The Kilborn Report does not support a route to the south and to say otherwise is simply incorrect,” said Cllr Headley.

“Councillor Moon is also incorrect in stating that the Council devised a route. The Council responded to the East West Rail Company’s consultation on route corridors and the East West Rail Company along with the Government decided which route to consult further upon.

“These are just further examples of inaccurate information being put out shamelessly by the Conservatives for their own political point-scoring. This doesn’t help residents one bit.”

Cllr Headley and the mayor’s office were asked if the Lib Dems shared any of the criticisms raised about the 2019 consultation process and any concern about the 2021 consultation ending as planned on 9 June.

The Conservative group, Bedford and Kempston MP, Mohammad Yasin (Labour) and Mayor Dave Hodgson all supported in May the second consultation phase being extended due to locally high COVID rates.

Read more: Councillors, Mayor and MP call for consultation extension on East West Rail

Cllr Headley highlighted a Bedford Liberal Democrat webpage covering facts on the previous consultation. The Mayor’s office had nothing further to add beyond the Mayor’s previous stated comments on extending the latest consultation phase.

Hindsight

“It’s something with the benefit of hindsight we should have done,” admitted Cllr Moon, when asked why the Conservative group hadn’t raised their concerns about the council’s approach back in 2019.

“What we hadn’t realised was that the council [was] going to be doing more than expressing a general view.

“We should have made sure it was brought to the table as it were, although we have no power to do so.”

He identified a Conservative group press release of 24 February 2021 as the point when they openly criticised the ‘fundamentally flawed’ 2019 consultation, leading to the 2 June re-consultation motion.

Network Rail 2019 report

Cllr Moon also highlighted Network Rail’s EWR Phase 2F report from March 2019.

This appeared to be the first reference to consideration of having a six-line track north of Bedford Midland station’s current location and the possible housing demolition linked to that.

The Network Rail report rejects the option of six tracks north of Bedford Midland station, though.

Cllr Headley said the council had been first made aware of the possibility of six tracks on 17 July 2019, after the first consultation ended:

“Network Rail, in their 2019 Report, state that six tracks are not needed and we have reiterated that, using the SLC Report, in the latest consultation response.”

Doubts were also voiced by Cllr Moon over the effectiveness of the council’s recent SLC outside consultants’ report which effectively remade the case for a four track-only line.

In particular, he said it failed to address future growth projections for East West Rail and the Midlands Main Line. The latter’s capacity was upgraded in Autumn 2019 with platform and electrification extensions.

On this, Cllr Headley noted the SLC report was based on May 2021 with no future timetables available.

“Whilst there has been discussion of potential future operations, capacity is a function of the interaction of trains at specific times, not general numbers of trains per hour.

“As such, it is not possible to be definite about future capacity at this time.

“However, what the SLC analysis did show, is that there are sufficient gaps in the existing timetable to accommodate two additional EWR trains per hour in each direction if they are timed correctly.”

The SLC report further supported Network Rail’s 2019 report which concluded that a six trains per hour passenger service and one freight train per hour could be accommodated on the slow lines north of Bedford Midland station.

Poets area and Ashburnham Road

Some houses in the Poets area of Bedford and Ashburnham Road are under threat of demolition if EWR’s proposed six-track line north of Bedford Midland station goes ahead as currently planned.

Detail of homes under threat in the Poets Area of Bedford

Cllr Moon attacked Bedford Labour group’s stance on East West Rail, suggesting they had “suppressed the impact” on Poets and aren’t opposed to Route E because they have “other fish to fry”, as part of the council’s governing coalition.

The Poets area is represented by Harpur ward Labour Cllrs Colleen Atkins and Louise Jackson.

Cllr Jackson, portfolio holder for health and wellbeing, was ‘disappointed’ by Cllr Moon’s remarks.

“Cllr Atkins and I have never sought to suppress the impact of these proposals on Poets, and remain committed to seeking a solution that will save homes,” she told the Bedford Independent.

“We completely reject the suggestion that our positions on the Executive have in any way influenced our views in respect of this project.

“We know too from our discussions with EWR and from Mohammad Yasin MP’s questioning of the rail minister that the four-track solution is under genuine consideration.

“This is a Conservative government scheme and it will be the Conservative Secretary of State who makes the final decision.

“We sincerely hope they will support the four-track option and save all the homes in the Poets area, as well as the electrification of the route from day one.”

Cllr Jackson also confirmed, when asked about the Network Rail 2019 report, that the Labour group weren’t “aware of any plans to demolish homes in 2019”.

Labour group leader Cllr Sue Oliver also drew attention to a council leaflet in 2019 supporting East West Rail.

This was clearly written on the basis of East West Rail going via Bedford Midland station, with times listed for connections that the line could offer to passengers if stopping at the station.

The leaflet contained a joint statement from the leaders of the Bedford Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat groups in favour of the project. At this time, Cllr Moon was the Conservative group’s leader.

Asked about this, Cllr Moon responded by pointing out the joint statement had the wording of calling for EWR to ‘connect with central Bedford’ and said:

“I have never varied from that view but do not believe connecting with equates to or necessitates going through.

“There are several options, both those covered by the consultation and others that would meet that stated objective without going to the north.”

Ashburnham Road is within Castle ward, which Green Party councillors Lucy Bywater and Ben Foley represent.

Castle Ward Green councillors Ben Foley and Lucy Bywater

Cllr Foley confirmed that they were unaware of the Network Rail 2019 report which first considered six tracks north of Bedford Midland station, noting its publication before their election as councillors.

He added he was ‘utterly stunned’ that Network Rail was already planning then to demolish the new Bromham Road bridge before it had even been completed.

Commenting on the 2019 Network Rail report, Cllr Bywater said, “I see that the document talks of a south-of-Bedford route option that would have involved demolitions of homes in Wixams, and mentions ‘approximately 150 residential properties impacted within Wixams’.”

This rather gave the lie to claims by supporters of such a route, “that talk of those demolitions is scaremongering by the council”.

The two councillors are opposed to housing demolitions for East West Rail and are looking to support Ashburnham Road residents.

Cllr Bywater added that they are “worried that any re-consultation would just prolong the agony” for affected residents.

Current summarised local party group stances on East West Rail

All four parties represented on Bedford Borough Council support in principle East West Rail and oppose housing demolitions.

Divisions over the route itself look set to continue though while the precise path of the line isn’t set in stone, although Route E is the preferred route corridor.

Update: This article was updated at 10:11 am on 30 July 2021. Roxton Parish, not Royston as previously stated, was the parish which Cllr Moon reported only 20% of postcodes had been sent EWR leaflet cards informing residents of the 2019 consultation.

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