Devolution doubts grow as MP claims West Norfolk rail upgrade ‘could cost £100 million’

Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn
Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009
Election Count at Lynnsport King's Lynn Henry Bellingham ANL-150805-111717009
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Upgrading West Norfolk’s rail links to Cambridge and London could cost more than £100 million, it was claimed yesterday.

The soaring figure for the Ely north junction project emerged amid ongoing scepticism over government plans to devolve additional powers to a new combined authority covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station ANL-160316-152639009

Train leaving King's Lynn Railway Station ANL-160316-152639009

Rail industry bosses say they are still developing plans for the project and are unable to say exactly what the final bill will be.

And supporters of devolution maintain the plans could be the start of an exciting new chapter for the region.

But an online petition has now been set up, demanding the proposals are withdrawn until full public consultation is undertaken.

And North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, who opposes the idea of an elected mayor for the region, said he was aware of widespread concern.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate last night, he insisted he supported the idea of devolution, but urged ministers to drop the mayor proposal, which he claimed could otherwise “ruin” the Budget.

He earlier told the Lynn News: “I haven’t met a single person who thinks it’s a good idea.”

Transport has been cited as an area where the region could benefit from the additional powers given to the combined authority.

A draft agreement for the new organisation, published after the plan was announced in last week’s Budget, includes a commitment to developing a business case for upgrading the line to and from Lynn.

It also includes the provision of an annual £30 million infrastructure budget, plus what the paper describes as a “multi-year, consolidated and, devolved local transport budget” and a new “Key Route network” of roads currently maintained by councils that it would take responsibility for.

But, Sir Henry said that, although Network Rail believe the cost of work on the junction itself is broadly unchanged, at around £35 million, the cost of improving or bypassing several level crossings close to the site is likely to be around double that.

He added: “This is just one example of the infrastructure projects we badly need. £30 million is not going to go very far.”

However, Network Rail yesterday said their position had not changed since it updated political and business leaders at a rail summit in Downham last month.

A spokesman said: “We are still developing the scheme and having consultations with Cambridgeshire County Council about that.”

The online petition, which was set up at the weekend, described the devolution plans as “undemocratic”, because of a lack of consultation with voters.

It said: “The proposals should be temporarily withdrawn until such time as due consultation and a referendum have been held.”

The petition needs to be supported by 10,000 signatures to receive a response from the government, while it could be debated in Parliament if it is signed by 100,000 people.

West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney stressed that no decision had been made on whether the agreement would be implemented.

He also said he expected the borough authority to largely continue to operate as it currently does.

But he added: “I think there’s still a long way to go. There a lot to discuss and that needs to involve local opinion. I think that’s entirely right.”

Sir Henry has already expressed concerns that the proposals could undermine the county of Norfolk and mean a drive towards larger unitary authorities.

He is also sceptical about whether the authority would be supported by new money and suggested a dedicated minister for the region would be a more effective way of delivering additional investment.

But supporters insist the proposals offer great potential for growth for the region.

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs said: “This draft agreement potentially sees the start of a profound transfer of powers from Whitehall to this region.

“I have always believed that key decisions on public services are best made by locally elected politicians, answerable to the public, rather than distant bureaucrats in Whitehall.”