Failure to electrify mooted Oxford Cambridge rail line branded a “disaster”

Posted on: July 10th, 2019
Posted by: Nathan Spencer
Categories: East,East Midlands,South East
Waterway Trust 2

Using diesel instead of electric trains on the proposed line between Oxford and Cambridge has been branded a “disaster” for the development of the surrounding Arc, one of the area’s most eminent planners has said.

The Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway Trust’s Jane Hamilton told the infrastructure panel session at Ox-Cams conference, that “backsliding” on cost was to blame for the decision not to electrify the route.

A key theme from speakers throughout our Oxford Cambridge Arc Development Conference was how sustainability should underpin the development of the Arc.

Using more polluting diesel trains was a “very disappointing decision” in this context, said Hamilton: “If the Arc is going to be like this, it’s never going to deliver what we need it to do. If that kind of thinking underpins the Arc, it’s going to be a bit of a disaster.”

Hugh Brennan, Managing Director, Hive Energy, agreed “It sounds like a shocker on the face of it.”

Matt Jackson, Conservation Manager at the The Wildlife Trusts, said the rail link’s route has been driven by cost considerations rather than inter-relationships with development planned along the route: “At the moment we are making those decisions in isolation and not looking at how it is going to influence development and the environment.”

He added: “We need to consider the two together. It’s not happening so far with the Oxford to Milton Keynes stretch of the road or Bedford to Cambridge stretch of railway where the route is about cost rather than development patterns to the north of Cambridge. We need to think about what impact development patterns are going to have.”

Earlier in her presentation, Hamilton had outlined her trust’s proposals for a waterway park linking the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes to the Great Ouse river in Bedford: “Closing a small gap in the waterways network will have a transformational impact on the area but it needs upfront investment and can’t be an add-on.”

“We know it will pay for itself in the long term and can offset the impact of major road and rail schemes,” she said, adding that the park should be treated as “serious infrastructure” that is integrated into the wider planning of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc.

The project would also create new accessible green space, help efforts to transfer water between regions and mitigate potential flood risks for new development by linking three major lakes in the Arc.

Hamilton estimated that around five per cent of the £170m project, which she described as a “very small” sum of money compared to the rail and road projects being elsewhere planned in the Arc, can be delivered by the private sector. This includes developer O&H, which has committed to deliver 5km of the waterway as part of its plans for 5,000 homes development in central Bedfordshire.

And investing in the proposed waterway park could have a much better impact on sustainability than smaller scale projects, she said: “If you invest upfront, the payback is enormous: if we think it’s about a fast buck, we’re never going to solve this problem.”

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The Wildlife Trusts’ Jackson agreed that green infrastructure must be factored into the early planning of the Arc. “We have to look strategically at how to deliver green infrastructure. We have opportunities to build in (sustainability) at earlier stages but need the mechanisms to do that. We are not anti-developer, but we struggle with the process of getting gains built in at earlier stages.”

The government’s reliance on voluntary approaches and “ducking” the “easy” decisions that would bring infrastructure forward means “nothing has happened”, he said: “Mechanisms can be put in place, but we need to start thinking about them now. If we rely on local plans, the review rate means the Arc will be built long before we have the policy drivers to put in green infrastructure on the ground.”

And while it contains rare floodplain meadows, the Arc has an “incredibly low level” of natural capital assets, Jackson said.

While 8.6% of the overall country is covered by designated Sites of Special Scientist Interest, the equivalent figure for the Arc is only 2%. But rewetting dried out Fenland soils provides “significant opportunities” to prevent losses of carbon, he said: “You can literally see the carbon disappear with the wind blowing soil off: We should be rewetting soils and keeping carbon in the ground.”

As an example of how natural capital can be enhanced through the development process, Jackson pointed to the new town at Camborne, where biodiversity has increased on a site that was largely farmed for oil seed rape before it was built on.

Calls for environmental infrastructure to be factored into the Arc’s planning were backed by Euan Hall, Chief Executive Officer at The Land Trust. He said: “Mainlining biodiversity, getting it into planning system, is key as long as it doesn’t slow up the planning system.”

Hive’s Brennan outlined his company’s plans for a 350 plus MW ground mount PV installation on a 888 acre site, which is designed to provide subsidy-free solar power. The site near Sittingbourne has been chosen because it is located close to the 400 KV ring running around the south east of England and a sub-station built to serve the London Array offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary.

The scheme, a joint-venture between Hive and Wirsol (UK), also features a battery capable of storing up to 2.1GWh of electricity, he said: “If renewables are going to be the future, energy storage is going to be key.”

Brennan said the target for securing consent for the scheme is in the first quarter of next year with a view to connecting to the grid in 2021.

But the staunchest opposition to his company’s plans has come from local Green Party councillors, he said: “The Earth may be hurtling toward oblivion, but Nimbyism survives.”

Jacqui Cox, Infrastructure Locality Lead for Cherwell & West Oxfordshire Councils, outlined plans to create a new garden village between Witney and Oxford. The new 2,200 home village is designed to be a “stand alone” settlement, providing “significant” employment.

The scheme entails an extension of the dual carriageway of the “very congested” A4, which runs past the site, including east and west bound bus lanes to Oxford.

Cox said the development will also feature one of a new outer ring of park and ride facilities around Oxford, which is designed to build on the success of transport policies that have kept a lid on car use in the university city.

Detailed policies for the development, which were adopted by the government in its garden village programme in 2017, are due to be set out in an area action plan.

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