On Friday I was pleased that the CEO of East West Rail Simon Blanchflower came to Bedford at my request to meet both elected representatives and crucially members of the public.
I know that EWR have met elected representatives in other areas and are planning to meet only elected representatives in North East Beds this week; however, I am grateful that they accepted the case I put to them that Bedford was uniquely affected and therefore residents needed to have their say in person ahead of the statutory consultation.
Before the public meeting was held, we undertook a walkabout with me, EWR and Councillors in attendance. We started at the station, and walked around the Ashburnham Road area, then through Poets, and finally meeting outside Bedford St John's station. Councillors Colleen Atkins, Louise Jackson, Lucy Bywater, Ben Foley, Abu Sultan and Fouzia Zamir Atiq all took the opportunity to make it clear that they oppose the potential demolition of houses.
The Councillors and I called for the electrification of the line and EWR confirmed that they have been making the case to Government for the line to be electrified rather than using diesel trains. We pressed EWR on the four-track option and EWR confirmed that they were still looking at all options to minimise the effect on the local community ahead of the publishing of their consultation response early next year.
The public meeting at St Cuthbert's Hall was well attended and we reached full capacity in bookings for the event. We observed social distancing to keep the public Covid-19 safe in an indoor space so couldn't open the numbers up to as many as we would have liked. Most of the residents were from the Poets area but there were also residents from other areas present including Brickhill, Queen's Park, De Parys, and Kempston.
After giving a brief introduction to the meeting, I handed over to Simon Blanchflower to give residents an update on the rail project.
Residents were then able to use the majority of the time to ask questions and express their concerns. There was clearly a lot of frustration and emotion, and rightly so. Some brilliant questions were asked on the need to sell scheme, the four track option, freight, the consultation process and much more. Indeed, many of these questions mirrored those asked by the Councillors and so it was good to see the community and local representatives both pressing EWR.
Some answers by EWR were useful for residents, including the realistic timeline for EWR and consultation process involved. But I know that many residents won't have been reassured at this stage because (as Simon Blanchflower himself stated) this is a period of uncertainty whilst we await the results of the consultation. Residents were thanked for responding to the consultation which had over 9,000 respondents each with many individual comments.
However, whilst residents may only have received some of the answers they were after, I believe that it was equally important for EWR to hear residents' legitimate fears and concerns directly and for them to see with their own eyes how their current plans will decimate a thriving community. I certainly hope EWR will reflect on what was said during this meeting and fully consider the impact their plans could have on local people.
I know my constituents share very different views on the rail project, ranging from full support to no support and everything in between (favouring alternative routes) and I will always make sure those voices also get their say, but one thing is clear, if EWR want support for an important rail upgrade through Bedford which I and many others support, they must avoid the demolition of homes.