Was There a Fair Consultation on a Northern Approach to Cambridge in 2019?

Figure 1 An elephant watches EWRCo staff discussing the 2019 consultation responses.

The 2019 EWR Co. central section consultation document on p.20 sets out a list of perceived problems with a northern approach to Cambridge and then the final paragraph states:

“However, we are seeking views through this consultation on whether we are right to focus on routes that approach Cambridge from the south. Of the five route options that are being taken forward for consultation, Routes B and E could alternatively approach Cambridge from the north if new information is provided that suggests this would be better than approaching Cambridge from the south.”

The 2019 EWR Co. consultation form asked for views on five route options all approaching Cambridge from the south. In addition, they asked “Do you agree that EWR Co are right to prioritise route options that approach Cambridge from the south rather than from the north?” 

EWR Co. presented statistics on the answer to this leading question in January 2020. A slight majority disagreed (37% vs 35%). This is hardly a sign that EWR Co. have got it right.  

We decided to probe a bit further into the consultation responses.

Northern Parishes not Consulted

We found that parishes to the north of Cambridge and the A428 were not even consulted about a northern approach. We know this because  the 2020 Public Feedback Report lists the prescribed consultees and does not include these parishes – see Appendix 2a starting on p.8. Furthermore, no maps of the potential northern approach were presented in the consultation. This hardly facilitates EWR Co.’s request for new information about a northern approach to be provided by the consultees. Where is the new information going to come from if you don’t actually consult to the north? and shouldn’t EWR Co. have had a more detailed look at the northern approach themselves and presented the information to the public in an impartial way rather than relying on the public to do their own research? There was certainly no parity here compared with the consultation on the approaches to the south.

However, in a recent letter to Anthony Browne MP, EWR Co. describe the 2019 consultation as follows:

“In answer to your comment around the various requests you have received from constituents for a consultation to be held on whether East West Rail should approach from the south or the north, please let me clarify that this point has been to a full public consultation as part of our first non-statutory consultation held between 28 January and March 11 2019.” (Our emphasis).

Are EWR Co. attempting rewrite history here?

How well were People in the Option E Area Consulted?

There were no consultation meetings held in the Option E area in between Cambourne and Cambridge. Cambridge Approaches can attest that the level of awareness of the consultation among the general public in this area in the second half of 2020 was very low – our leaflet and webinars were the first that many people had heard of it. Shockingly, most of the few that were aware heard about it through survey requests from EWR Co’s agents, Ardent.

Most of the discussion during the consultation centred on routes through Bassingbourn rather than Cambourne.

Maybe it was different in Cambourne and further west, but judging from recent activity in Option E parishes north of Bedford, they were in the dark as well. For example, the village of Ravensden is bang in the line of Option E, but does not appear in the list of statutory consultees. Why is that?

Parish Council Responses

Perhaps the best proxy we have for public opinion on the route options at the time of the 2019 consultation comes from the parish council responses that were sent in.

EWR Co. listed 70 parish councils as prescribed consultees and a year later they published the responses from 41 of these councils here (starting on page 63). Figure 2 shows a map of which parish councils responded. Perhaps one of the more surprising things on the map is the lack of response from Great Shelford and surrounding parishes[1] which EWR Co knew (because they said so on p. 20 of their consultation document) would be affected by any route option chosen. Despite the parish being listed as a prescribed consultee, the parish clerk to Great Shelford PC did not receive a letter notifying the parish council of the consultation.  

Figure 2 Which Parish Councils Responded

In the consultation, the parish councils were faced with a choice between route options A to E.  This choice involved deciding on at least three issues:

  • The route out of Bedford south (A, B, C) or north (D, E) 
  • Bassingbourn (A, C, D) or Cambourne (B, E) station as the last stop before Cambridge
  • Cambridge approached from the south (A, B, C, D, E) or the north (-)

We have been through the response letters sent in by parish councils. We first looked at whether they supported a northern approach into Cambridge or whether they at least thought there should be a proper consultation about it. Then, we counted the parishes that responded but did not express a preference because they (very understandably) felt that the consultation did not provide enough information. 

Finally, we counted the parishes preferring a route through Bassingbourn (routes A, C, D) and separately through Cambourne (routes B, E).  In doing this, we noted that only one parish east of Cambourne (based on the dotted black line in Figure 2[2]) supported a southern option with a station at Cambourne.

Figure 3 shows the results.

Figure 3 Analysis of Parish Council Responses

Hardly a resounding endorsement of option E with a southern approach to Cambridge. 

The Elephant in the Room

Figure 3 shows that the largest proportion of parish council responses (54%) either expressed a preference for a northern approach to Cambridge or at least felt there should be a proper consultation about it. This was not even a consultation option, but it was the most common response.

That is the elephant in the room which EWR Co. ignored in choosing their preferred route option (and continue to ignore). 

They just presented option E as the most popular choice and re-stated their reasons for not following the northern approach in a slightly longer form[3] than they did at the time of the consultation.

Yes, parish councils were influenced by the campaign of CBRR. But that’s because CBRR were making, and continue to make, good arguments for their northern approach to Cambridge.

The next most common response from parishes (17%) was to say that the consultation did not provide enough information to express a preference.

So nearly three quarters of the responses did not support any of the southern options A to E. Shouldn’t that tell EWR Co. that they need to think hard about the next step in the consultation process?

In recent correspondence with EWR Co. we were informed that they intend to present more analysis of the northern approach to Cambridge in their next consultation as they consult on detailed route alignments in the option E area. It seems that they have not listened to the feedback from the parishes at all.

The elephant is still there.

Peter Bungay and William Harrold

[1] Newton, Hauxton and Little Shelford

[2]                The logic for this division was that parishes east of Cambourne would be more informed and concerned about the route into Cambridge than those parishes further west.

[3] See §16 of their Preferred Route Option Report 2020

11 replies on “Was There a Fair Consultation on a Northern Approach to Cambridge in 2019?”

I applaud of course the efforts to persuade EWR to consider and consult on the northern route alongside the other routes, but is it possible to bring legal or other powerful pressure to force them to do so? It cannot be right that EWR is allowed to arbitrarily choose themselves, without oversight by some higher authority, what is and is not included in the consultation.

EWR Co are subject to judicial review like any other public authority. They must take into account all relevant matters and not any irrelevant ones and they must not reach a decision no reasonable public official in their position would reach.

I well remember getting the consultation documents through the letterbox and I do think it was reasonably well promoted. I studied them carefully, visited the website, and discussed it with my husband. But I found myself feeling unable to comment. What were the criteria which I was supposed to comment on? I knew what my own criteria would be – that it preserve the natural environment and deliver on promises to reduce carbon. But nowhere in the consultation documents was there any information (not claims, real facts) that I can recall on any of those details. Did the consultation include a question on electrification, for example? On additional local stations? On aesthetic impact, or protection of natural environment? It did not. I didn’t feel qualified to comment, based on the information provided, on which route was the best. How would I know? Nor could I object to any option, including option E, on any basis except “not close to me please”. In general, I thought, the possibility of a local train seemed potentially a good thing – it wasn’t clear that no local stations were included. So, confused, I did not return the consultation. Was this a “fair” consultation, then? It was a ridiculous one, at any rate. It has served as a wakeup call for me though. We do need to be more proactive in finding out information when this sort of fake “consulation” comes through our doors.

I think this pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin of EWR’s 2019 ‘consultation’.

In fact, it’s much worse than that: it opens EWR to the accusation that it is deliberately misrepresenting its own data in order to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion.

That’s not a comfortable position for an organisation to be in when the potential for legal action is lurking just around the corner.

Indeed, I think it calls into question whether any conclusions put forward by EWR can be relied upon. Should the analysis of alternative routes and the 2021 consultation be taken from EWR and run by an independent 3rd party?

An excellent piece, William and Peter, thank you for stating the facts so clearly. We can only trust that the elephant, like the worm, will turn…

Page 20 of EWR’s consultation document said “All of the route options shortlisted for consultation approach Cambridge from the south by connecting to the West Anglia Main Line either at or slightly to the north of Shepreth Junction (where the Hitchin-Cambridge and West Anglia lines meet) or to the south of Great Shelford.” This link takes you to the map, with a wide orange corridor covering the north and south of Cambridge, that was attached to the letter to parish councils – . The consultation card (shown at page 31 of the document that includes the appendices to the EWR Co public feedback report – link below) includes the same map and lists consultation meetings in (most relevantly) Bassingbourn, Orwell, Cambourne and Cambridge. How were Great and Little Shelford, Hauxton and Newton supposed to work it out? And why did no alarm bells ring at EWR Co when none of them responded to the consultation?

Peter and William, first class analysis

Thank you for reminding about the list of statutory consultees and the responses (links under Parish Councils Responses in above).
The document is a mere 359 pages long, it gives an accurate picture of the thinking at time of publication, leading on to the final preferred route (as of today, E) selection. Often references to the “Northern Route” within.

Well worth wading through, in view of lockdown and present poor gardening weather.

The “consultation” for Route E around the Bedford end was equally flawed. Multiple parishes that the route actually goes through (Clapham, Wilden, Ravensden, Colesden) were not included at all. EWR have refused to give data on where the responses that they did receive came from.
Bedford Borough Council spent tens of thousands of taxpayers money paying consultants to “prove” the route (through flood plains, excessive gradients etc) could be changed to be made better/cheaper – while none of the other options were potentially reworked in the same way.

I’ve stumbled upon this analysis and am impressed how much the site had developed since I was last here.
I was surprised to read that “Abington Pigotts Parish Council” was in the list of statutory consultees. Abington Pigotts has no Parish Council as we’re too small to qualify. Instead, the village is rather poorly served by me as “Chairman of the Parish Meeting”. That point is of no consequence but more important is that EWR didn’t at any time consult with me or ask for my response on behalf of AP. I held a meeting to which CBRR made an excellent presentation so the village was fully aware.
Even if EWR had second thoughts when they realised there was no PC here, they should not be claiming that they consulted or that I didn’t respond.
I did respond, of course, in my own right as a resident but that’s quite different.

Of course, non consultation could also be levelled at the pressure groups promoting a northern route and a station for Cambourne north of the A428. When did Cambridge Approaches ever consult with parishes that would be affected? But really can we not stand together to try to get a sensible resolution to the freight issue and to the issues of commuting in and out of Cambridge – just two of the several, incompatible objectives the EWR proposals are trying to satisfy?

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