Halt this study NOW warns MP Steve Barclay or rail link from Wisbech or March could be in jeopardy

MP Steve Barclay PHOTO: John Elworthy

MP Steve Barclay PHOTO: John Elworthy - Credit: Archant

MP Steve Barclay claims a major study on the future transport needs of Wisbech is flawed and unless it is amended or withdrawn could jeopardise prospects for re-opening the rail link to March.

The MP broke his silence on the study after failing to persuade council chiefs to pull the report that warns residents if they don’t approve the draft preferred strategy then £10.5 million allocated for transport infrastructure in the town would be lost.

“We are on the verge of great opportunity or great failure,” he said.

“My constituents are being told that if they do not vote for this package in its entirety we lose £10.5 million allocated to Wisbech. That is factually incorrect.”

Behind the scenes is a simmering row over procrastinations and delays to the Wisbech rail project that is threatening to derail it.

A series of public consultations on Wisbech Access Strategy are near the end but have been advertised as a “road-based transport project”.

Mr Barclay says the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the county council and Fenland Council have all ignored a Government directive that part of the £10.5 million can be used to progress the rail link.

Most Read

This is confirmed in a letter dated March 27, 2015, from the current Government Cabinet Minister responsible for LEPs, the Secretary of State for Business Greg Clark MP.

He explained to Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, that the LEP had been awarded £1 million in 2014 to develop a business case for the access strategy.

But he said a further £10.5 million was provisionally allocated for later years and the LEP had been given permission to invest some of it in further rail link studies subject to county council oversight.

Mr Clark spoke of the “momentum on this important project” but progress has been anything but since then.

What is termed a Grip 2 study produced a positive business case for the rail link but when follow up studies were completed after Network Rail wanted more information the business case fell marginally below the threshold needed to progress it.

Mr Barclay believes that had costs being effectively challenged, not least as the Rail Minister Paul Maynard states the level crossing costs were ‘gold plated’ by Network Rail and above what the rail regulator required, no allowance was made of the ready availability of cheaper material stored at Whitemoor Yard, nor were the benefits of improvements to Ely Junction which have now been confirmed as going ahead, these could easily have been shown the case for the rail link.

Mr Barclay says that the LEP and local councils have failed to question whether the rail costs were inflated as the Rail Minister and he had both suggested. This paper has been showed written evidence confirming the a Rail Minister’s view that costs are gold plated - a fact the LEP has failed to challenge over the last 18 months.

Instead, says the MP, we have been in a no-man’s land for 18 months with no work being done on the Wisbech rail link save for a recent promise of funding in the future from Mayor James Palmer and the combined authority, after work likely to take some years on the feasibility of the Wisbech Garden Town.

Mr Barclay recently met Fenland Council leaders but failed to persuade them to pull the Wisbech Access study to allow the rail link to be part of it.

“The Government has allocated this £10.5 million through its growth fund to spend by 2021,” he said.

“But not only has the Government not stipulated it can only be spent only on roads as residents have been told, but that statement to residents is contrary to what was said by the minister who allocated the money in the first place,” he said.

“It is misleading to say to my constituents that we will lose the money if we don’t agree this and it is misleading to say the only scheme that can be brought forward to the LEP is a road scheme.”

But his biggest fear is that if the final access strategy is approved it could make it impossible for a rail station to be built in the town centre – a decision that could weaken once again its business case.

“This document was brought forward by Fenland Council on the advice of the LEP and it is to the LEP we need to turn to understand why they seem to be ignoring the advice of Government, and why they are telling the council the cash can only be used for roads and not for rail.

“I think they simply got the basic facts wrong”.

Mr Barclay added: “This is a flawed consultation in a whole host of ways. It is flawed because it says take it or leave it. It is flawed because it covers only roads.

“It is flawed because the questions do not allow more nuanced responses to allow partial disagreement/agreement.

“It is flawed in allowing insufficient time of just three and a half weeks for a complex consultation”.

“And it is flawed because it closes off further consultation on Wisbech rail and in a leading way since the Department of Transport has given higher benefits cost scores to those rail stations in town rather than on the edge of town.

“If you are seeking to prevent the rail plan going ahead this is quite an effective way of pre-empting further rail consultation. It spikes the guns in a way that lowers the benefit costs ratio.

Effectively, he said, the public are currently being asked for their views on a strategy that contains “factual inaccuracies, misleading statements and possesses a desire to pre-empt future consultations on rail”.

Mr Barclay is hopeful Mayor Palmer and the combined authority might stave off the threat to the rail debate “since he is hugely supportive and looking at transport through fresh eyes”.

He added: “We need to pause before this consultation progresses any further.”