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Uncertainty over future for £5bn East West Rail line





People living on or near the East West Rail route are “living in a state of limbo” amid the news that Oxford Cambridge Arc is “no more”.

The OxCam Arc. Picture: Google Earth Pro (55099438)
The OxCam Arc. Picture: Google Earth Pro (55099438)

A report to South Cambridgeshire District Council’s full council on Tuesday (February 22) stated there had been a “significant change” in the government’s approach to the Arc.

Council leader Cllr Bridget Smith told members: “As far as we’re concerned, the Arc is no more.”

She added: “It was a government project and we need clarification that it no longer is.”

This follows the publication earlier this month of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, which had no mention of the Arc.
It prompted the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Lib Dem Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, to warn that funding for the Arc has been “dramatically scaled back”.

In a letter from the Department for Transport that has been 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”.

The vision for the East West Main Line. Map: East West Main Line Partnership (55099472)
The vision for the East West Main Line. Map: East West Main Line Partnership (55099472)

Earlier this month South Cambridgeshire’s Tory MP Anthony Browne had confirmed that the OxCam Arc is no longer a government priority.

But the lack of clarity will not be of much comfort to residents living along the preferred route, who have yet to see the full results of a public consultation held last year.

Dr William Harrold, the co-founder of campaign group Cambridge Approaches, told the Cambridge Independent: “There are many people living on or near the preferred route that are now in a state of limbo, which they fear will drag on for years. We need to be able to get on with our lives.”

He added: “I think it’s a put up or shut up situation. They either need to come up with the business case or just don’t do it.”

Mr Browne has said that if the OxCam Arc is dropped, it “certainly puts more strain on the already precarious business case for East West Rail”.

East West Rail protest , signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club . Picture: Keith Heppell. (55099482)
East West Rail protest , signs in Shelford near Scotsdale Garden Centre and Shelford Rugby Club . Picture: Keith Heppell. (55099482)

He said: “While some areas in South Cambridgeshire will see the benefits of East West Rail, the proposals also come at great cost; splitting communities, carving up heritage sites, and damaging the environment. This continued delay puts the overall business case for the line in the spotlight – if the government cannot convince itself of the benefits, funds can be better allocated on the local transport projects we really need.

“I have urged the Chancellor to look again at East West Rail, and will continue to press for funding that will genuinely benefit our increasingly isolated villages.”

He added on the Arc: “So far, we have seen little in the way of real proposals from the Arc project. Despite months of talk from our district council leader, who has been deeply involved in the project, we are still subject to just a few bland and meaningless ‘pillars’ that currently hold it up.

“An end to the Arc doesn’t mean an end to investment in South Cambridgeshire. We have already seen increasing funding for education, road and rail projects, and public transport in the Levelling Up White Paper.

Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (55099416)
Anthony Browne. Picture: Keith Heppell. (55099416)

“I want to see more of this, projects that truly benefit our residents, which is why I’m continuing to push for new railway stations, better public transport, and an end to the dithering caused by our overcomplicated system of overlapping transport authorities.”

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 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.

Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council Cllr Bridget Smith Picture: Keith Heppell
Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council Cllr Bridget Smith Picture: Keith Heppell

“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 East West Rail central section was also noticeably absent in the government’s latest Budget, with the regional body behind the scheme – the East West Main Line Partnership formerly East West Rail Consortium – calling for clarity on whether the full route will be funded.

Meanwhile, the chair of England’s Economic Heartland, Cllr Richard Wenham, has said that the government needs to commit to delivering the full line to Cambridge by 2030.

Following the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper earlier this month, Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said: “The Ox-Cam Arc was not universally popular, but it offered a mechanism to progress key infrastructure projects across the Oxford to Cambridge route, such as East West Rail. Funding for this work has been dramatically scaled back, meaning thousands of pounds of work, along with many hours of time could be wasted.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, asked about the future of the Arc, said: “The OxCam Arc is a globally renowned hub of innovation, with businesses and universities that are leading the way in life sciences, space and green technologies.

Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
Cambridgeshire County Council leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha

“In October last year, the government ran a publication consultation gathering views to shape the vision for this unique area. We continue to work through next steps, and will provide more information in due course.”

When asked about the implications of the White Paper, a spokesperson for the EWR Co said: “East West Rail will help the region from Oxford – Milton Keynes – Bedford – Cambridge to Build Back Better following the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“EWR will support local and national government, as well as private businesses, in seizing new opportunities to drive sustained economic growth, productivity improvements, and solidify international competitive advantage in key sectors. This will make the region attractive to new firms and help existing companies grow.

“It will connect people and communities across the area to each other and beyond the region, providing new connectivity that the region needs in order to thrive and prosper by facilitating more, and better, jobs in addition to unlocking strategically important areas for development.”

A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG (55099444)
A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG (55099444)

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

“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.

“This thorough approach will support EWR in making the best possible choices to support communities and businesses between Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Cambridge and beyond.”

  • Do you welcome the government downgrading OxCam Arc development? Should East West Rail proceed regardless? Or should it be scaled back too? Get in touch via @CambridgeIndy on Twitter and Cambridge Independent on Facebook. Email newsdesk@iliffmedia.co.uk.


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