Bedford Council has affirmed its support for route E of the proposed Bedford – Cambridge railway, but why?
This line, part of a longer East-West railway, has so far only been the subject of a non-statutory consultation, with only the barest information on its environmental impact.
Consultation is helpful, but the information on routes sets out only corridors. The railway is a National Infrastructure Project under the 2008 Planning Act and there should be a statutory consultation later and a public inquiry before a decision.
Development consent will be decided by the Secretary of State at the time. A council is just an ‘Interested Party’ and only has the status of a consultee.
Whilst the language of the Council’s decision is guarded, it is clear from its words that it has long favoured the route north of the town, through Bedford station, Brickhill and Ravensden.
Bedford will get a train service east and west whichever route is taken. There are 3 possible southern routes with different impacts.
Consultation is a good thing, but it is potentially harmful to the public interest if a stance is taken too early on the basis of limited information.
The information published at this stage is too preliminary to include environmental impacts or reduce the inherently large uncertainties in costs and BCR (benefit/cost ratio).
Despite the announcement of a preferred route, I believe the Council should have waited for environmental impacts of routes north and south of Bedford to be assessed in full, including numbers of properties affected by proximity to each line.
The Council relies almost entirely on a belief in its planning objectives about growth and regeneration to justify a route through and to the north of Bedford.
It does not seem to have taken account of air quality, noise and vibration impacts on the town centre. This is identified even at this stage as a High Risk Hot Spot in the Preferred Route Consultation Report, which Councillors say they have read.
There is already a problem of air pollution in the town centre which is an Air Quality Management Area. The cause is traffic emissions. The northern route will bring additional traffic to the station.
Significant intervention may be needed to mitigate the harm of the northern route, for instance a traffic restriction on Ashburnham Road. The northern route would thus be self-defeating by limiting access to the station. Also, worsening of air quality in the town centre does nothing to support it as a regeneration area.
Unless the Council can demonstrate that a scheme will be delivered to fully mitigate the air quality impacts of the railway development on the town centre (for example by air quality modelling), it should not be advocating additional harm to be caused to air quality in the town centre by its support for the northern route.
Later in 2021 there is supposed to be a statutory consultation with more information about environmental impacts, and the Council should have waited to decide on its stance then, not beforehand. It will also have the chance to give its more informed views in proper Local Impact Report to the Public Inquiry expected between 2022-24.
Bedford Council has either not understood the proper process or is happy to make its mind up on a route irrespective of the environmental impacts.
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