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‘Show us the case for East West Rail – or get on and cancel it’

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A letter signed by almost 70 organisations and individuals calls for answers over the future of East West Rail’s Bedford to Cambridge section.

East West Rail protest signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell
East West Rail protest signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell

It says if the project is “not to continue” it must be stopped now, to lift “a planning blight” that impacts thousands of people and to prevent millions of pounds being wasted.

The signatories state that if the project is to continue then a “positive” business case must be published.

The letter was sent to the secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps MP via South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne.

In a covering letter, the Mr Browne wrote: “Residents of South Cambridgeshire have valid concerns that they have been left in limbo, not knowing if EWR will proceed and enduring an ongoing planning blight on their properties.

“There is significant speculation that EWR’s business case, particularly if the additional cost of electrification is included, will not pass scrutiny under the Treasury’s ‘Green Book’ rules. I have previously made clear my view that electrification – or proven alternative green technology – must be incorporated into this scheme from the outset.

“We need an honest public discussion about whether EWR is the right transport solution for the new circumstances we face. If EWR is no longer viable, we must stop spending on it now, remove the planning blight for residents and refocus our transport investment in this region. If EWR is to progress, its underlying business case must be published at the earliest possible opportunity to reassure the public that it will be money well spent.

A tower was erected by campaigners in Harston showing the height of the ‘Great Wall’ embankment proposed as part of East West Rail’s planned route through Cambridgeshire Picture: Keith Heppell
A tower was erected by campaigners in Harston showing the height of the ‘Great Wall’ embankment proposed as part of East West Rail’s planned route through Cambridgeshire Picture: Keith Heppell

“Whatever the future of EWR, it remains absolutely essential that Cambridgeshire’s transport problems are tackled. The future success of the Cambridge area is of national economic significance.

“There is a pressing need to connect our villages and towns to jobs, education and opportunities in and around Cambridge. An integrated local transport network must be prioritised and delivered to ensure our region’s economic success does not stall.”

The letter has been signed by 36 town and parish councils, 14 other organisations including environmental groups, 17 district and county councillors from across the political spectrum and other significant individuals.

A key principle for project delivery according to the government is one of “continuing business justification to confirm benefits can be realised and risks managed within the organisation’s risk appetite, and that unjustified work is terminated”.

But campaigners say the principle – commonly followed in the private sector – is not being applied by the East West Rail Company and are calling for more information to be released.

A spokesperson for East West Rail Company said the route “is an important part of levelling up outside of London” and added: “Business cases for major infrastructure programmes are complex and are developed over time, consistent with the large amount of evidence gathering that is required.

South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne sent the letter on behalf of the signatories. Picture: Keith Heppell
South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne sent the letter on behalf of the signatories. Picture: Keith Heppell

“A huge variety of evidence is being considered as part of our business case. This includes (but is not limited to) feedback from consultations, economic modelling, analysis of socio-economic data and a range of environmental studies.”

But campaigners have hit back and argue that “saying it’s normal practice” is not “an adequate justification”.

Dr William Harrold, the co-founder of campaign group Cambridge Approaches, which is a signatory of the letter, said “Nearly every organisation we asked to support the letter said yes. Most parish councils were unanimously in favour. Given time and effort, I am sure much more support could have been found. I really hope that the government will hear the message from local representatives and act on it.”

Villagers along the line have expressed concern that it could split their communities and are alarmed by the prospect of high embankments. Those in favour, meanwhile, argue a new rail line will be key to easing Cambridge’s congestion crisis, particularly with the high level of house-building due in the region.

The route, expected to cost in the region of £5billion, is due to connect Oxford to Cambridge via Milton Keynes, Bedford and new stations at St Neots South/Tempsford and Cambourne. East West Rail Company favours a southern approach into the city for the line, which would link up with the forthcoming Cambridge South railway station at the fast-growing Biomedical Campus.

Dr William Harrold, co-founder of campaign group Cambridge Approaches, in Haslingfield Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr William Harrold, co-founder of campaign group Cambridge Approaches, in Haslingfield Picture: Keith Heppell

Work on plans for the Bedford to Cambridge ‘central’ section began in early 2018. Campaigners first asked for a business case through a Freedom of Information Act release as early as September 2020.

In a letter to North East Bedfordshire MP Richard Fuller last month, the new rail minister said that she was expecting to review East West Rail Company’s latest findings on the strategic and economic case at the end of May, but added that the Department for Transport does not routinely publish business cases.

“We need those findings to be published,” say campaigners.

Questions were raised over the future of the project last month amid suggestions that Oxford-Cambridge Arc was no longer a government priority.

South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Bridget Smith, said: “As far as we’re concerned, the Arc is no more.”

It followed the publication of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, which had no mention of the Arc.

This prompted the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, fellow Lib Dem Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, to warn that funding for the Arc has been “dramatically scaled back”.

East West Rail route alignment options (55721936)
East West Rail route alignment options (55721936)

In a letter from the Department for Transport seen by the Cambridge Independent it is stated that: “EWR is a key project for supporting the delivery of the government’s objectives for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.”

Mr Browne had previously confirmed, in a column for the Cambridge Independent, that the OxCam Arc is no longer a government priority. He said that if it is dropped, it “certainly puts more strain on the already precarious business case for East West Rail”.

The Department for Transport reaffirmed that East West Rail is planned to create a direct rail link between Oxford and Cambridge, “significantly improving journey times and delivering benefits for passengers and businesses regionally and nationally”.

It added that in January 2021 a total of £760m was announced to construct connection stage one between Bicester and Bletchley.

In a response to a question around the government’s latest position on East West Rail in light of the Levelling Up White Paper, the DfT responded: “CS2 (Bletchley to Bedford) and CS3 (Bedford to Cambridge) are at development stage, and options for the sections were consulted on as part of a wide-ranging non-statutory consultation from March-June 2021.

“The company is working on developing the best possible design options based on this feedback received, alongside environmental, technical and financial studies, to ensure that infrastructure investment offers the best value for money and can be delivered in the most efficient way for the taxpayer.

“As a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, EWR Co is planning to submit a Development Consent Order in 2025 to secure the relevant planning and permitted development powers.”

The letter in full

The Rt. Hon Grant Shapps MP, secretary of state for transport by email

Dear secretary of state,

We write as a group of parish councils, councillors, environmental groups and residents of South Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Central Bedfordshire.

We are alarmed that, despite the design for this section having been worked on for several years and construction costings having been produced, at no time has EWR Co. made their business case public.

In a letter dated February 2, 2022 the East West Rail Team confirmed that “EWR is a key project for supporting the delivery of the Government’s objectives for the Oxford Cambridge Arc.” However, the flagship Levelling Up White Paper published on the same day makes no mention of the Oxford Cambridge Arc; and indeed, specifically excludes the Oxford/Cambridge/London Golden Triangle as a search area for further investment.

In January 2020 the EWR CS benefit to cost ratio was stated at an extremely low value of 0.64. Since then, a number of factors would lead us to think that the BCR can have only worsened. There is no housing planned around EWR stations in the update to the Greater Cambridge proposed Local Plan 2021; there is no published incremental business case for freight; there is no evidence that post- pandemic inter-city passenger numbers will be anything like as before and local commuter traffic numbers and patterns are unknown; the EWR CS was not mentioned in SR21. Lastly, the electrification or “hydrogenation” of the line will add significantly to the cost.

If this project is to continue then a positive business case needs to be published. If this project is not to continue then it needs to be stopped now, lifting a planning blight that impacts many communities, thousands of people and to prevent wasting millions of pounds on current project costs.

We believe that the time has come for EWR Co. to publish a business case; and the purpose of this letter is to ask you, as Minister responsible, to direct EWR Co. to do so.

List of supporting organisations

  • Arrington Parish Council
  • Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trusts
  • Bedford For A Re-consultation (BFARe)
  • Barrington Parish Council
  • Barton Parish Council
  • Bourn Parish Council
  • Boxworth Parish Council
  • Cam Bed Rail Road Action Group
  • Cam Valley Forum
  • Cambridge Approaches Action Group
  • Comberton Parish Council
  • Countryside Restoration Trust
  • CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
  • CPRE Bedfordshire
  • Caldecote Parish Council
  • Clapham Parish Council, Bedfordshire
  • Croxton Park
  • Croxton Parish Council
  • Croydon Parish Council
  • Dry Drayton Parish Council
  • Elsworth Parish Council
  • Fowlmere Parish Council
  • Gamlingay Parish Council
  • Great Shelford Parish Council
  • Guilden Morden Parish Council
  • Harlton Parish Council
  • Harston Parish Council
  • Harston Residents Association
  • Haslingfield Village Society
  • Haslingfield Parish Council
  • Hatley Estates
  • Hauxton Parish Council
  • Litlington Parish Council
  • Little Shelford Parish Council
  • Kingston Parish Council
  • Knapwell Parish Council
  • Madingley Parish Council
  • Melbourn Parish Council
  • Meldreth Parish Council
  • Newton Parish Council
  • Oakington Transport Action Group
  • Orwell Parish Council
  • St. Neots Town Council
  • Stapleford Parish Council
  • Steeple Morden Parish Council
  • Stop The OxCam Arc Group
  • The Eversdens Parish Council
  • Toft Parish Council
  • Trumpington Residents’ Association
  • Wimpole Parish Council
  • Yelling Parish Council

List of supporting individuals

  • Cllr Michael Atkins, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Sam Davies, city councillor, Queen Edith’s ward (part of the South Cambs. constituency) (Independent)
  • Cllr Peter Fane, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Stephen Ferguson, chair of Cambridgeshire County Council and mayor of St Neots (Independent)
  • Kevin Hand, ecologist, board member and former president Cambridge Natural History Society
  • Cllr Mark Howell, Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative)
  • Cllr Sebastian Kindersley, vice chair, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Maria King, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Lina Nieto, former Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative)
  • Sir Michael Oliver, deputy lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and former Lord Mayor of the City of London
  • Cllr Mandy Smith, Cambridgeshire County Council (Conservative)
  • Cllr Firouz Thompson, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Ian Sollom, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Susan Van De Ven, Cambridgeshire County Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Aiden Van De Weyer, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Lib Dem)
  • Cllr Dr. Richard Williams, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Conservative)
  • Cllr Nick Wright, South Cambridgeshire District Council (Conservative)

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