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East West Rail plans ‘are unachievable’ says government body as lobbying letters revealed



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East West Rail was branded ‘unachievable’ by a government body as it was revealed that politicians and business leaders in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire have been lobbying for the controversial £5billion scheme to go ahead.

At the Cambridge Belfry in Cambourne for an East West Rail public engagement event are, from left, Nasreen Ullah, strategic stakeholder manager, Simon Scott, the project’s engineering director, and Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion. Picture: Keith Heppell
At the Cambridge Belfry in Cambourne for an East West Rail public engagement event are, from left, Nasreen Ullah, strategic stakeholder manager, Simon Scott, the project’s engineering director, and Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) gave a red rating to the Bedford to Cambridge section, meaning “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”.

It comes as two letters emerged, signed by Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians along with business and university leaders, which express “full support” for the ambitious scheme to connect Oxford and Cambridge, via new stations at Cambourne and St Neots/Tempsford.

The letters – one of which is shown below – prompted Conservative politicians to accuse South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Liberal Democrat leader Bridget Smith of offering a “blank cheque” to East West Rail and failing to stand up for communities along the line, where there has been concern over its impact and proposed embankments that could cut through communities.

But Cllr Smith said the letters were “intended to pressure the government to come clean and make its position clear”.

The red rating given to phases two and three of the project was one of 27 issued across the government’s 235 major projects.

Two visitors to the East West Rail event in Cambourne make their views on the scheme known by holding up signs saying ‘No to EWR’. Picture: Keith Heppell
Two visitors to the East West Rail event in Cambourne make their views on the scheme known by holding up signs saying ‘No to EWR’. Picture: Keith Heppell

It means the IPA, which sits within the Cabinet Office, does not believe the scheme can meet its objectives on time and within budget unless risks are addressed.

The Department for Transport says the scheme is in “early development stages” while East West Rail says it continues to keep the “business case and delivery programme under review”.

The two letters were sent to Rishi Sunak MP, who at the time was still chancellor, and transport secretary Grant Shapps, who earlier this month said the East West Rail project would be the first to face the axe when asked what he would cut from the transport budget during an interview with LBC.

The letter to Mr Sunak sets out ‘three main economic benefits’ stating that “there is a real risk that one of the world’s most significant innovation clusters could stagnante”.

It goes on to say that: “There is an urgent need for regional-scale schemes to provide transport and unlock sustainable development locations and connect existing communities to more job opportunities. EWR is the most significant example of this by far.”

The letter, which is signed by the leaders of Cambridge City, South Cambridgeshire District, Huntingdon District and Cambridge County Councils along with the chair of Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, the chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says a new rail connection is needed to ensure a “highly-connected, affordable and low carbon housing response can be developed for the expected economic growth of the Cambridge city region”.

It explains that a rail link would mean the benefits of “Cambridge’s sustained economic growth are also felt across the East of England”.

But the letters have angered some in South Cambridgeshire, where communities could be carved up by the current planned route.

A letter from political, business and academic leaders to then Chancellor Rishi Sunak about East West Rail
A letter from political, business and academic leaders to then Chancellor Rishi Sunak about East West Rail

South Cambridgeshire district Cllr Richard Williams (Con, Whittlesford) said at a meeting of the authority’s full council: “The letter signed by Cllr Smith offers a blank cheque to East West Rail. It makes frequent references to promoting growth in Cambridge, but says nothing about communities in South Cambridgeshire that would be adversely affected by the proposed new line.

“Residents of Newton in my ward face being cut off from their local school and other services, as well as suffering noise and other impacts from the new line. They are just one of many affected communities.

“I was shocked to see Cllr Smith state her ‘full support’ for East West Rail without a single word to acknowledge the serious concerns of communities that would be affected by the line. That Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire Council could show such little regard for the communities it is supposed to represent, is very depressing indeed.”

The letter to Mr Shapps calls for the transport secretary to “urge the government to confirm its commitment to fund and deliver East West Rail in full. The scheme will play a fundamental role in supporting sustainable and inclusive economic growth across the region and the wider UK economy”.

Cambridge Approaches argues there is a stronger case for the route to approach Cambridge from the north. Co-founder William Harrold has been calling for East West Railway Co to publish a business case to justify the southern route, but has yet to have a response.

He told the Cambridge Independent: “In signing these letters to Grant Shapps and Rishi Sunak giving unconditional support to funding East West Rail, council leader Bridget Smith is giving her own unsubstantiated views on the project rather than those of the people she represents. She chose not to publish the letters or to mention the subject in the recent party election leaflets for the district. The government should not interpret her signature as the settled view of the people of South Cambridgeshire. Far from it.”

Page 2 of the letter from political, business and academic leaders to then Chancellor Rishi Sunak about East West Rail
Page 2 of the letter from political, business and academic leaders to then Chancellor Rishi Sunak about East West Rail

Mr Harrold has written to Cllr Smith on why he thinks East West Rail should not go ahead. These include the state of rail finances, the competition with the road network, the impact of climate change, passenger fares, construction costs and value for money.

He said: “There are infrastructure projects all over the UK, so if we apportion the say £7.5 billion total cost over the current population between Bedford and Cambridge that might generously be 500,000 households. The cost per household would then be £15,000 for something which the vast majority of them would rarely if ever use.”

Cllr Smith read a pre-prepared statement on behalf of Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats in response to Cllr Williams.

She said: “The Liberal Democrats in Cambridgeshire have been lobbying for the reinstatement of an East West Rail Link for 50 years.

“The only thing that’s changed in that time is the urgency with which we need to give people viable alternatives for the car in order to cut journey times, reduce our very high carbon emissions and help people with the escalating cost of living.

“East West Rail is a government scheme being delivered by a private company resulting in poor accountability and very little transparency. And it’s been an enormous frustration that government has kept residents completely in the dark for years now about their intentions. And this is a pitiful way of delivering a major piece of public transport infrastructure. The two reasons letters signed by all local council leaders, the universities and key business organisations to the secretary of state and the Chancellor. were intended to pressure the government to come clean and make its position clear so that we can start to plan for a low-carbon, low cost-of-living future for our region.”

Cllr Smith said that South Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats made it clear before May’s election that they support the principle of a rail link and a station serving Cambourne “because it is only by providing really good quality public transport that will enable all people to travel easily, to work to have equal access to opportunities, to reduce the reliance on cars and the consequential air pollution, carbon emissions, the congestion, and the increased cost of living”.

William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell
William Harrold in Haslingfield. Picture: Keith Heppell

She added: “We are reserving judgement on the final route alignment and the location of the station because we do have grave concerns about the environmental impact of the whole scheme, and especially the impact on villages close to a new station along the route.”

Cllr Lina Nieto (Con, Hardwick) said “Politicians are elected to represent residents. It appears that Cllr Smith, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, doesn’t understand this. She read a statement by the Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats and how the party has for a long time been asking for an EWR line.

“She completely dismissed the impact that this project will have on residents and communities that she is meant to be representing. It is imperative that this administration listens to residents and does everything it can to mitigate the damage that residents will suffer.”

South Cambs Tory MP Anthony Browne added: “Residents have a right to be concerned that the Liberal Democrat council has given up any pretence at representing their views to national government. In my meetings with the transport secretary and transport ministers, I have always represented the concerns and hopes of South Cambs residents, including those living in villages concerned about the impact of East West Rail.”

A spokesperson for East West Railway Co said of the IPA’s red rating: “Developing a project like East West Rail is an iterative process and we will continue to keep the business case and delivery programme under review. This is the right approach to adopt, given the known uncertainty of government policy on the wider Ox-Cam Arc. We have already been refreshing the business case and testing the options for the future development of the scheme. We anticipate once that work is complete, we will update our programme and improve on this rating.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “This project is in the early development stages and costs are still being determined. As the scheme progresses we will continue to ensure it represents value for money and delivers benefits to the region.”



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