Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Park – Impact of the A421 Upgrade

In March the Trust was made aware of the proposal to go ahead with a scheme to upgrade the A421 south of Milton Keynes and, despite our lobbying for 2 years, to not provide a culvert which would secure the route of the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway. The main reason given for this decision was the lack of available funding.

Since then the Trust has received an enormous level of support on this issue and with regard to the Waterway Park in a wider sense. All five local MPs have supported us and along with many others have written to the Secretary of State for Transport and other Ministers and to Central Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes Councils seeking support for providing a culvert as part of the A421 scheme. The response which our MPs and other supporters have received are extremely disappointing. The Department of Transport puts the matter of funding for a culvert under the A421 squarely back in the hands of Milton Keynes and Central Bedfordshire Councils who are responsible for the road project, particularly Central Bedfordshire who are project managing it.

The response from the two Local Authorities is that given wider financial pressures there is simply no funding. Central Bedfordshire proposed that the only way forward was for the B&MK Waterway Trust to find the funding for a culvert and to do so within an extremely short timescale which was wholly unrealistic. None the less we took this proposition seriously, sought more information from Central Bedfordshire on cost breakdowns and phasing and are currently in discussion with the Highways England Designated Fund team to see if we can qualify for their Environmental Fund.

However, the timescales are far too short to make an impact on the current A421 scheme. Central Bedfordshire have flagged up the risks to the scheme of any further delay. The contract is let and agreed timescales must be adhered to so as to avoid further costs.

The Trust is continuing to press for a solution. However, despite all the support, it seems unlikely that we will resolve this in the short term as all options have been closed off other than finding funding ourselves and that will take time.

We have received a huge amount of support on this matter which has significantly raised the profile of the project and that support is ongoing. The Trust has met with and briefed a number of Central Bedfordshire Councillors whose support for the Waterway remains very strong. However, given current financial pressures a culvert is simply not a priority for funding. The Council has made it clear that the road project has been aligned to facilitate future provision for the waterway and will not block the route. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the culvert lies just within the Milton Keynes Council’s boundary who are also clear that they cannot fund it.

The Trust will continue to emphasise the adverse impact the lack of a culvert is going to have on the Waterway. It may well be possible to make provision in the future but at a much greater cost and with significant traffic management impacts on the upgraded A421. This will count against the overall feasibility of Milton Keynes to the M1 section of the Waterway.

On the positive front the issue has provided the Trust with opportunities to promote the Waterway to a much wider audience than previously, particularly in the context of the Oxford/Milton Keynes/Cambridge corridor. A new Oxford to Cambridge Expressway is proposed as part of the new infrastructure for the corridor. The broad route for the Expressway is due to be announced later this year and may have implications for the upgraded A421 such that further work may be required. This may present us with another opportunity to find a way forward and ensure the Waterway route is fully integrated into local and strategic infrastructure.

With this in mind we must focus our sights on future opportunities. With the lessons learned from the current situation, as a Trust we will continue to work on sources of funding and, in particular, will be strengthening our business case such that we can demonstrate the full value of the Waterway. We want to leave no opportunity for the Waterway to be side-lined again. To ensure it is fully integrated into the infrastructure planning for the Oxford to Cambridge corridor we will be making the case for strong partnership working with the Local Authorities, South East Midlands Local  Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) and England’s Economic Heartland (EEH), a broad grouping of local authorities across the Oxford/Milton Keynes/Cambridge Corridor who are overseeing the planning and delivery of strategic transport schemes.

In this regard we have had strong support from Iain Stewart MP in his capacity as the Government’s Oxford/Milton Keynes/Cambridge corridor “Champion” . The Trust has briefed 

England’s Economic Heartlands Transport Group and will be providing them with our recently completed Economic Impact Study which we hope will enable them to endorse the Waterway Park project. More work on demonstrating the benefits of the Waterway will be needed and that will not be straightforward as there are no easy precedents we can follow. We will continue to need all the support we can get, constantly raising the profile of the Waterway so that it can’t be ignored as local and more strategic development goes ahead.

The Trust wants to thank everyone who has supported us. Disappointingly it appears that despite all the support for our case we can convince neither the Department of Transport nor our Local Authority partners to find funding for a culvert and we do not have sufficient time and resource to do so ourselves. Our focus must be on maintaining the profile that this issue has given the Waterway Park and building a business case to ensure it is integrated into the Oxford/Milton Keynes/Cambridge corridor.