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Politics can take a long time to get things done – especially building a new rail line!

PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 July 2020

Will trains ever run from Ipswich, via Cambridge station, to Oxford? Picture: PAUL GEATER

Will trains ever run from Ipswich, via Cambridge station, to Oxford? Picture: PAUL GEATER

Archant

When you’ve been around as long as me, it’s not surprising that the same stories come round and round again – but this week there have been a couple of issues that have blown up which have been in the melting pot for literally decades.

The East West Rail routeThe East West Rail route

First we had the revelation that the government is to look again at shaking up local councils across the country, including this area. It seems that in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and the financial chasm being faced by local authorities the government is determined to press ahead with single-tier, unitary councils.

MORE: Could a council shake-up be the price for bailing out local authorities?

I first covered that idea in 1995 when then Environment Secretary John Gummer (now Lord Deben) came up with a reform idea that could have created a series of unitary councils across the region.

Opposition from Ipswich, which feared losing the Labour voice in local government in Suffolk, and from county councillors worried about losing their jobs (and allowances) stymied that attempt at reform and had also snuffed out whimperings about further reform since.

Now, though, I detect more of a determination by the government to press ahead – governed this time by a determination to cut costs and bureaucracy rather than a desire to improve democracy.

There is no doubt the most democratic and representative way of carving up Suffolk would be to create three councils – east and west Suffolk based on Lowestoft and Bury st Edmunds and a greater Ipswich urban area stretching from Felixstowe and Shotley in the east to Claydon and Barham in the west.

However what is the most democratic and representative is also the most expensive – so the prospect of a government supporting such a carve up seems non-existant.

If the government wants to simply cut costs and give the impression that councils are becoming more efficient, the easiest way of doing that is simply by abolishing districts and having everything run by the county councils. I can’t help feeling that is what will happen.

I don’t detect much enthusiasm for it on the ground – and if the government is insisting on public support, then the chance is no change will ever happen.

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But I suspect Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak think there isn’t an overwhelming feeling of love for local councils by their voters – and this is the best chance they will ever have of bringing in the reforms that Whitehall wants. So one council for Suffolk? I suspect it’s on its way.

So after 25 years of talking we might get some local government reform . . . but that 25 years is short in comparison with the issues we have seen in trying to rebuild a section of railway line between East Anglia and the south midlands.

I first did a story about rebuilding the rail link between Cambridge and Oxford – allowing trains to run from Ipswich to Oxford and possibly to Swindon – in 1985. The supporters of the scheme were talking about getting a new rail line built between Cambridge and Bedford and lines from Bedford to Oxford upgraded by the year 2000.

Now 35 years after discussions began (and 25 years after the East West Rail Consortium itself was formed) we now have . . . the appointment of consultants to develop a business case to upgrade the line between Ipswich and Cambridge.

And the consortium had the sheer gall to put out a press release as if this was some kind of triumph.

MORE: New look at upgrading line from Ipswich to Cambridge

Frankly it would have been better if Suffolk County Councillor Alexander Nicoll (as chair of the Eastern Section of East West Rail) had got down on his knees on behalf of everyone who has served on the consortium over the last decades and begged the public for forgiveness for the sheer ineptitude it has demonstrated in delivering what should be a fairly simple project.

We’re not talking about building HS2 or a major motorway from Lands End to John O’Groats. We’re talking about building 25 miles of new track between Cambridge and Bedford and upgrading another 50 miles or so to make a modern railway.

After 35 years what has been achieved? Upgrading 10 miles between Oxford and Bicester and starting to clear vegetation on the next bit of disused (but still existing) line from Bicester to Milton Keynes.

There’s no detailed agreement on where the new line should go (although a rough route has been decided) and the consortium is only now starting to look at upgrading other lines east of Cambridge.

I’m sorry, but the East West Rail Consortium does look like the most unsuccessful pressure group in the history of transport. I know it’s had to cope with governments changing their mind and blowing hot and cold on the project. And I have to pay tribute to some individuals who have continued pressing the case for a much-needed rail line like Ipswich Council’s Phil Smart.

But the fact that we’re still looking ahead 10 years before the earliest possible opening date is absolutely pathetic.


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