The MP for a constituency through which the East West Rail (EWR) line will run, has used an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons to accuse Bedford’s Mayor, Dave Hodgson, of having a ‘secret plan’ to influence the chosen route E.
Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for NE Bedfordshire, called the debate yesterday (Monday) with the Transport Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, to raise concerns over what he described as “flaws caused by the consultation process” and said that more must be done to “close the trust deficit” between his constituents and EWR.
You can read the full transcript of the debate here or watch the video clip of the full debate.
Mr Fuller told the Minister that the flaws in the initial 2019 consultation on the route “are multiple” and have “broken down the trust of constituents.”
He then went on to reference a ‘secret plan’ by Bedford Borough Council, “containing flaky economic assumptions, airbrushing out references to existing homes that will have to be demolished, and potentially concealing acceptance of additional housing development as the price to be paid for the chosen route.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said that he truly believed that Bedford’s Liberal Democrat Mayor, Dave Hodgson, would not have had any undue influence over EWR’s plans and stated that he had already raised the question with East West Rail previously.
“I will happily go away again and ask this question of EWR,” he said. “If there’s anything that can finally either be put to one side…so we can dismiss it, or if there is something in it, we can have it out in the open.
“I do not believe that will be the case because I do not believe there will be anything to see.”
In response, Mayor Dave Hodgson said: “I am stunned at Mr Fuller’s comments of a ‘secret plan’, the Council has been very open and clear that they supported a route north of Bedford Midland station.
“Indeed this is something the Council have been promoting for decades and has previously had cross-party support – including discussion at the last Mayoral election where both I and my Conservative opponent were quoted in the Bedford Independent supporting a northern route.”
Outlining the Council’s support for a route through Bedford Midland Station, Mayor Dave stated that it appeared in the Local Plan which, he said, “had six separate consultations and was supported by all parties, including the Conservatives, when brought to Full Council.
“The route through Bedford Midland Station was also in the Council’s Allocations and Designations Plan and its Passenger Transport Strategy 2011 – 21 and various other documents consulted on and brought to Full Council.”
The Government and EWRCo decided on Route E north of Bedford Midland station in January 2020.
Mayor Dave said: “At that time Richard Fuller supported the announcement saying: “I am pleased that the government has made this announcement to progress investment in this important rail link.”
“The local Conservatives have tried to appear in favour of and against this route at different times when it suits them – they say residents did not know, but why did the local Councillors not keep residents informed of these issues?”
Throughout the debate, Mr Fuller raised the issue of the evnironmental impact on the countryside in his constituency.
He said, “…the detailed assessment of environmental impact is being done right at the end of the process, rather than being front and centre at the start of the process.
“It rightly asks how a route that is longer and hillier, requiring significant additional construction and carving its way through open countryside, can have a carbon footprint consistent with our net zero targets? As a result, environmental impact is seen as the guise of mitigation rather than as a full part of a proper assessment.”
Mr Fuller said the Government could not be committed to biodiversity and protection of our natural habitat if it continues this practice and he asked the Minister to take his conerns to the top.
“The Minister—indeed, the Prime Minister—has the opportunity with East West Rail to take a stand on this matter,” he said.
“Will the Minister therefore raise these environmental concerns directly with No. 10 and gain its assurance that this project, with all its changes, has the Prime Minister’s endorsement as being fully compliant with his green agenda?”
In response, Mr Heaton Harris said he understood Mr Fuller’s environmental concerns, but said that, “to go to No. 10 to ask for something – that is a tad above my paygrade.”
However, he said: “East West Railway Company will continue to assess the potential environmental effects as part of the route alignment development work.
“An environmental impact assessment will be undertaken and an environmental statement submitted when East West Railway Company submits its development consent order application to the Planning Inspectorate.
“It will therefore be going by the letter and in the spirit of the rules and the law.”
Campaigners in Mr Fuller’s constituency said that they welcomed his challenges to the Minister and said that further transparency of the costings of Route E were critical.
The Bedford For A Re-consultation (BFARe) group is calling for Route E to be scrapped and for another consultation to take place, which they would hope would see an alternative route being selected.
“EWR have not been open about how Route E went from being the most expensive to the second cheapest in 2019 and we look forward to them revealing this detail,” said Bedford For A Re-Consultation (BFARe) campaign spokesperson, Mike Barlow.
The BFARe group say that EWR have admitted that they have the majority of these costs and have refused to reveal them.
Parliamentary convention dictates that other MPs can only make brief comments on another MP’s Adjournment Debate. Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford and Kempston – who had also requested an Adjournment Debate on the topic – asked Mr Fuller to clarify his position on East-West Rail.
“Whilst Mr. Fuller and I agree on a number of points – including the need for the environmental impact of the project to be fully considered, and for EWR to be more transparent and publish cost-benefit analysis information, I do not believe it is possible for MPs to be “neutral” on such a vital local issue.”
He said that Mr Fuller was elected on a Conservative manifesto pledge to deliver East West Rail and is on record supporting Route E when it was announced as the preferred route in January 2020.
“Supporting EWR but retrospectively adopting a position of route neutrality smacks of having your cake and eating it and is not a sustainable or honest position to take.”
Mr Yasin later questioned the Transport Minister over the decision to opt for a four-track or six-track route through Bedford Midland Station. The latter, which was not revealed to MPs, councillors or residents until this year, would mean that a number of homes in the Poets Area of Bedford would need to be demolished.
“I took the opportunity to question the Transport Minister on the East-West Rail consultation, and to commit to the four-track solution that would protect homes in the Poets area,” said Mr Yasin.
“I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to properly investigate this option with East West Rail. I believe that all Bedfordshire MPs should unite against the demolition of homes.
“I will continue to use every opportunity to stand up for my constituents and press for homes to be protected.”
Commenting on the debate, Mayor Dave Hodgson reiterated the Council’s committment to the four-track option, which would remove the need for demolition of homes in the Poets Area.
“The Council has also called on the railway to be electrified from the start to ensure we have a green railway and see improvements to our local environment,” he said.
Harpur Ward councilllors, Louise Jackson and Colleen Atkins, who represent the Poets Area, told the Bedford Indepdnent: “We’re encouraged that the Minister has pledged to discuss four-track options for this railway with East West Rail.
“We hope that he will also fully consider the representations that both MPs, the Council and we as Councillors have made on the need for electrification.”