Councillors left disappointed as decision made on £37m station project

Cllr Elisa Meschini and Waterbeach rail station

Cllr Elisa Meschini, of Cambridgeshire County Council, said she "wished the situation was different" after an agreement was made over who would take over the £37m Waterbeach station project. - Credit: Harry Rutter/Google Maps

The £37 million project to relocate Waterbeach station will be taken on by the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP). 

The decision was described as being between “a rock and a hard place”, as councillors said they were disappointed the project would not be developer-led as initially proposed. 

The GCP’s executive board agreed at a meeting on June 30 to take responsibility for the project, investing £20 million and putting forward the remaining £17m, which will later be repaid by the developer. 

South Cambridgeshire District Council granted outline approval in 2021 for 4,500 new homes as part of the planned Waterbeach New Town development. 

One of the conditions attached to the approval was that a new railway station needed to be built in Waterbeach. 

The project had initially been proposed to be developer-led but the developer, RLW Estates, failed to get a commercial funding agreement for the scheme. 

Niamh Matthews, assistant director for strategy and programme at the GCP, said the proposal to fund the station relocation was “fundamentally about housing delivery”, as the station was needed to “unlock” the 4,500 homes. 

She explained that it was within the agreed role of the authority to help facilitate housing growth in the Greater Cambridge area, and fund infrastructure improvements. 

Cllr Elisa Meschini of Cambridgeshire County Council

Cllr Elisa Meschini described the decision over who would take on the £37m Waterbeach station project as like being between "a rock and a hard place". - Credit: Harry Rutter

Most Read

Some members of the public did raise their concerns about the proposals at the meeting. 

Jane Williams questioned why RLW Estates had been unable to secure a commercial funding arrangement for the station and asked whether this indicated the risk was “so difficult” that no one was prepared to commit.  

She asked why the GCP was prepared to do so if this was the case. 

Ms Williams also asked what Network Rail’s position was regarding the station being delivered by 2025, and at what stage of negotiation the developer and Network Rail were at. 

John Grant questioned whether the line itself could handle the additional capacity. 

He said: “If rail will be an option for significant numbers of people, has there been any consideration of the detail of how the train service would be delivered? 

“There is very little space capacity on the railway and it is not clear where a local shuttle service would be able to terminate. 

“For instance, there is not expected to be platform space for trains to turn around at Cambridge South.” 

Peter Blake, director of transport at the GCP, said: “The developer has been unable to agree a commercial arrangement despite developing a business case for the scheme. 

“Predominantly this relates to the additional income related to rail fares that a new scheme and a new town will generate and the Exchequer being unable to delegate that to the local area.” 

Mr Blake added: “If agreed, the investment would come from another part of the government through the city deal, designed to support delivery of the local plan and deal with the infrastructure deficit that we have in this area. 

“Discussions with the rail industry, Network Rail, Department for Transport and operators continue and have been ongoing for some period of time.” 

Members of the board said they recognised the need to build the station and that it was within the authority’s role to deliver it. 

Councillor Dave Baigent, from Cambridge City Council, said: “We are not only here to facilitate and fund roads, we also facilitate infrastructure of the area. 

“Were we not to come forward and support the station, then the homes would probably not be built and that would be a failure of what we are supposed to be doing.  

“But I am acutely aware we are not advertising this as something we are looking forward to doing, it is something we regret having to do.” 

Councillor Brian Milnes, from South Cambridgeshire District Council, said it was a “huge disappointment” that the developer had been “unable to fulfil the commitment made to the planning committee”. 

Councillor Elisa Meschini, from Cambridgeshire County Council, said she “wished the situation was different”. 

She said: “When you come into politics the first two concepts you learn about are a rock and a hard place; I believe these are particularly relevant.

“In Greater Cambridge, we do have a very clear policy requirement under the joint local plan that we must deliver housing growth.  

“We must deliver it sustainably, lest it happens to us in a manner that we do not like; infrastructure is a very important part of that.” 

Cllr Meschini added that signs received from the business community “point to the fact that we might already be too late. 

“Yet quite a lot of what we have got in front of us is actually deeply unsatisfactory for reasons that are outside of our control. 

“If this is not to happen to us then we need to take control of it.” 

She continued: “In no known universe should it be allowable under planning law that the taxpayer be called upon to subsidise the profits of the developer up to a margin of 20 per cent. 

“In no known universe should it be allowable again under planning law that the developer can lay claim to further £17m of taxpayers money when this is in effect a loan.” 

Cllr Meschini highlighted that by approving the funding and taking responsibility for the project, the authority will be “on the hook” in terms of accountability and any failures with engagement that had taken place. 

When it was put to a vote, the members of the board unanimously agreed to fund and take on the delivery of the new station.