East West Rail could yet be scrapped, says South Cambridgeshire District Council leader
The entire East West Rail project could yet be “scrapped”, according to the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Bridget Smith said the £5bn railway line from Oxford to Cambridge “might not happen” if there was a change in government.
She also demanded more information from the East West Railway Company, which is currently consulting until June 9 on the section from Bedford to Cambridge, via a new station at Cambourne.
Her comments came as the Conservative opposition on the council called on the Liberal Democrat administration to strengthen its consultation response to East West Rail Company, which was established by the government in 2017 and aims to deliver the railway by 2030.
The council says it supports the new railway line in principle – a decision it made in 2018. A number of aspects are in line with council priorities, the document says, such as reduced dependency on private cars, supporting and enabling growth and the delivery of new homes, and its potential economic benefits.
But the council is also calling for more detail in a number of areas, including asking for East West Rail to release more information on its assessments of both the options to run north and south of Cambridge to justify its southern preference, which has alarmed communities on its path.
The council is also calling for further assessment of the project’s impact on the landscape, heritage sites, and the area’s ecology.
It says it wants the project to be fully electric from the start, and to deliver 20 per cent biodiversity net gain rather than the current “unambitious” 10 per cent.
It says there is “potential for significant negative impacts on local residents and businesses, by severing communities and local connectivity”, and adds: “We ask that whichever route is selected, the detailed design carefully addresses the issue of severance.”
Conservative Cllr Richard Williams called for the administration to “toughen up” parts of the response on landscape and severance of communities, saying it should come out against “severing communities” and building “intrusive” structures.
He welcomed the council’s “strong line” on electrification, but said it should be matched in other areas.
The leader of the Conservative opposition group, Heather Williams, challenged the Lib Dems to state a position on a route preference and to take a political stance on the issues involved.
Cllr Williams acknowledged East West Rail is “going to be a big issue wherever it goes and it is very difficult to give a district-wide approach”, but added: “What I don’t see in this at all is what is the political preference of this cabinet? What route, what leadership is being shown? What do you prefer? Do you prefer northern, southern? What is it you are pushing for, lobbying for and expressing?
“I have confidence that you will be heard as a council, as a cabinet, if you wish to offer political leadership in this. I have confidence in the council being heard, but we need something to be saying.”
The deputy leader of the council, Lib Dem Cllr Neil Gough, responded that it is “premature” to ask for such a position and said: “It’s very difficult for us on the basis of the information to really opine at the moment.”
He said: “The decision on the preferred route is East West Rail’s. They are the ones who are in possession of the information to enable them to choose that preferred route, which will be tested subsequently in the process.
“I think at this stage what we must do is make sure that East West Rail are aware of all of the issues which we see associated with the preferred route and any other route what our considerations are and push them to make transparent the basis and the information and the technical information on which they are making their decisions.”
Cllr Heather Williams sought confirmation that the council’s leadership will take a position.
She raised the case of Anglian Water’s consultation last year where it sought feedback on a location to move its water treatment plant, and said the Lib Dem leadership never expressed a preference, an outcome she described as a “disaster”.
On the question of a route for East West Rail, Cllr Williams asked: “Can I have an assurance from you leader that we won’t be sitting on the fence, we will show leadership as a political body as well?”
Cllr Smith, responded: “We will be showing leadership but I am not committing to articulating a preference at this point until we know a lot more about this project. It might not happen, there might be a change of government and the whole thing might be scrapped. We will act in the right way at the right time.”
The lead cabinet member for strategic planning, Lib Dem Cllr Tumi Hawkins, said she is “extremely disappointed with East West Rail” over the information provided.
She said: “The lack of information from them, the prevarication, it’s mind boggling I think. And yet they expect us to give them responses. What response do you expect us to give? And actually, Cllr Heather Williams, we can’t go one way or the other if we don’t have the information that we need”.
Cllr Van de Weyer said East West Rail and the government have made choices and expressed preferences “based on information that we do not have”.
He said the council’s response highlights “how little information we have been given in order to come to a view on the route options”.
He said East West Rail and the government “have not been open and transparent” and added: “It undermines confidence in the government’s decision-making process if we are not given the information that we need.”
Likewise, Lib Dem Cllr Brian Milnes said the council’s response is “entirely limited by the nature of the proposals from East West Rail which are very insubstantial”. He said he looks forward to seeing “more firm proposals” from East West Rail.
Although the cabinet agreed amendments would now be made to the document in response to councillors’ feedback, it will not return again to a public forum for debate.
The cabinet has delegated authority to finalise the document to its deputy leader and lead cabinet member for strategic planning and transport and transformation, Cllr Gough, and its joint director of planning and economic development, Stephen Kelly.
Mr Kelly said there is room to “finesse” the response in line with Cllr Williams’ criticism. He said in some cases the response is limited by the level of detail available.
He said: “Further stages in the process will include statutory consultation in which the council hopefully will be in a position to be more definite in terms of its answers. At this stage of the process we are seeking additional information”.
He said: “I would caution against absolutes at this stage because as the report notes we simply don’t have all of the engineering information and technical assessments to comment definitely.”
Afterwards, a spokesperson for the East West Rail Company said: “We have been in regular contact with South Cambridgeshire District Council since the 2019 consultation through a number of different meetings and conversations.
“We have spoken with their senior representatives as well as their highways, archaeology and historic environment teams, and the team at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning, to share information at each stage of the process.
“We will continue to work with the local authorities and talk to the parish, ward and county councillors along the route throughout the development of the project, and in light of these comments, we will be in touch with South Cambridgeshire District Council to fully understand their concerns.”
Visit our dedicated East West Rail page for more stories, opinions and background