I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposal for the Hinckley national rail freight interchange in South Leicestershire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and I welcome the Minister to his place. I will say at the outset that the Minister and I spoke about this last night, and I am very grateful for his comments and his time. I know that he has quite a few words to say today, so I may curtail my speech. I also thank colleagues for joining me in this debate, which, although it is on an issue unique to South Leicestershire, is representative of something that other hon. Members may encounter in their constituencies.
The proposal for the Hinkley national rail freight interchange is for the construction of a purpose-built logistics hub to the south of the village of Elmesthorpe in my constituency. The hub would be operational 24/7 and built with access to the existing two-way railway track between Birmingham and Leicester to allow for freight train entry, along with local road access for the entry of a quite substantial number of heavy goods vehicles.
Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I welcome him to this Westminster Hall debate. I appreciate that he cannot speak this afternoon because he has yet to make his maiden speech. The rail freight interchange will have as much of an impact on his constituency of Bosworth as it will on my constituency of South Leicestershire. The 24/7 impact on the current infrastructure—let alone the very modest additional infrastructure that has been proposed—will be detrimental to his constituents as well as to mine.
I will put the location of the proposal into context. The planned site for the Hinkley rail hub would, in its totality, encompass a 440-acre area; for comparison, that is almost a quarter of the size of Gatwick airport. We are talking about a very large area that is currently beautiful rolling South Leicestershire countryside. The site will neighbour the historic and picturesque county villages of Elmesthorpe, Stoney Stanton, Sapcote, Sharnford, Aston Flamville, Potters Marston, Croft, Huncote, Thurlaston and Wigston Parva, which are collectively and colloquially referred to as the Fosse villages.
I appreciate that people in the Chamber—with the exception of those in the Public Gallery—will not be familiar with the Fosse villages, much to their detriment. The settlements, many of which date back to medieval times, vary in size and, because of their location, share a collective bond in this area of Leicestershire. My constituents in the Fosse villages contend with overburdened infrastructure at the very best of times.
I entirely agree. Government policy is to reduce HGV traffic by moving freight off our principal road arteries and on to rail, but the concern about this specific proposal is that developers often propose a purported rail freight head development when all they want is a very large logistics park. We must be ultra-cautious that this particular development is not just a front for yet another large-scale logistics park.
Taking freight off the roads is a great idea. A problem that worries me for my constituency, however, is that if the rail freight hub went ahead, there would be more congestion on our already congested roads, particularly the A5. If money were spent on improving the A5, that would perhaps allow proposals like this to go forward in future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I mentioned a moment ago, at times the existing infrastructure is already at capacity. For three or four years we have been discussing dualling the A5 all the way to the M1, and that has not yet happened—there are safety issues with the A5. My constituents—and, no doubt, my hon. Friend’s constituents—are concerned that the proposal will add to a road system that is frankly not equipped to take such an extremely large amount of proposed HGV traffic.
As I have said, my constituents in the Fosse villages contend with overburdened infrastructure at the best of times. Furthermore, the proximity of the site to the existing logistics hubs in Leicestershire is paramount. Magna Park is one of Europe’s largest logistics parks and is proposed to double in size. It is near the market town of Lutterworth, only a few miles south of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), while the proposed rail hub would be only a few miles north. To give hon. Members an idea of the sheer size of Magna Park, its footprint is directly comparable to, and perhaps larger than, that of Lutterworth. The existing logistics park is enormous—particularly if it doubles in size—so another large logistics park, developed under the guise of a rail freight head terminal, would be problematic and grossly unfair to people who like the quality of life in that part of Leicestershire.
I appreciate the strategic importance of sites, such as Magna Park and the proposed interchange, situated in the so-called golden triangle—the intersection of the M1, M69 and M6 motorways—meaning that about 80% of the British population can be reached within five hours. However, some deeply concerning factors must be considered. The environmental impact of the proposal has been at the fore of many of my constituents’ concerns, and the plans are to concrete over the existing site, which is beautiful rolling countryside of lush green fields stretching as far as the eye can see.
Anyone standing in those glorious South Leicestershire fields today would quite easily spot the nearby local nature reserve of Burbage common, most of which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth. If I may speak for my hon. Friend, the common is a 200-acre mix of semi-natural woodlands and unspoiled grassland that is used daily not just by his constituents, but by mine, for walking, horse-riding, exploring and orienteering. Quite frankly, I am more than a little jealous that the common sits in his constituency, but as he knows, we might have a boundary review, and I know what I will be asking for.
My hon. Friend may not be surprised to hear that I would be reluctant to see Burbage common moved. Has he ever been to Acorns coffee shop and seen how well used it is by walkers, ramblers and dog walkers? People enjoy having a coffee and using that time to relax after walking around the beautiful Burbage common.
Sadly, I have not yet visited that particular locality, but my constituents do visit. I look forward to being taken there by my hon. Friend to celebrate his maiden speech, once he has made it.
Burbage common is a site of unspoiled and unrivalled natural beauty. Significantly, it is also home to Burbage wood, which is a site of special scientific interest, with rare wild flowers, more than 20 species of butterfly, more than 100 different species of fungi and more than 25 different mammals. The Hinkley rail hub site would be situated directly next to Burbage common and would therefore have an indescribably detrimental impact on that unspoiled local nature reserve and the various wildlife and plants that currently thrive there.
On the supposed employment benefits of the proposed development, the developer has stated that in excess of 8,000 jobs will be created. I am a proud Conservative and always favour free enterprise and the creation of employment, but I have very serious concerns about the filling of those supposed vacancies.
I am not aware of specific plans for counteracting that. Constituents are certainly expressing concerns about those things, and rightly so.
Earlier, I mentioned nearby Magna Park, which purportedly employs more than 10,000 people. My constituency has a welcome unemployment rate of less than 1%, so who will those employment opportunities be for? They will not be for my constituents, and I doubt they will be for neighbouring MPs’ constituents either. In reality, if the proposal were to go ahead and so many employment opportunities were to be created, we would find people commuting from up to an hour away, from as far afield as Milton Keynes, and taking rat runs through the Fosse villages to get to the proposed railway hub terminal. That would put even more pressure on the already problematic infrastructure of the Fosse villages.
At this point, I will bring in the views of Blaby District Council, one of the two excellent Conservative-led local authorities in my constituency. The rail hub is a nationally significant infrastructure project, so Blaby District Council will act as a statutory consultee on the application. The final planning decision will lie with the responsible Secretary of State.
Blaby District Council has informed me that, although the plans are in their pre-submission stage at present, its elected members have made it clear that they cannot support the development in question. They share concerns similar to those that I have expressed today. They are concerned about the impact of heavy goods vehicles travelling through rural villages, the environmental impacts such as light and noise pollution, and the huge increase in traffic, with ecology and the protection of local biodiversity high on the political agenda.
Local district councillor colleagues would certainly be concerned if an unhealthily high number of HGVs used existing roads. Clearly, the existing roads would not be sufficient to deal with the thousands of employees on the rat runs and the HGV traffic, much of which would no doubt use the smaller B-class roads rather than the A-class roads even though it is obliged to use A-class roads.
Blaby District Council has advised that many factors will need to be addressed in order for the proposal to avoid a formal objection. The site has no status in the council’s local plan, and therefore it has not been envisaged or planned for. The council is concerned about where the required employment would be sourced from and what provisions would be made to accommodate those employees. Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council is the other statutory consultee on the application and, although it is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, I understand that it shares similar concerns.
I will now discuss my constituents’ views of the proposals. Considering the historic collective bonds in the Fosse villages that go back many years, it comes as little surprise that the vast majority of my constituents are opposed to the plans. Scarcely a day goes by when my inbox or my constituency office is not informed of a resident’s concern about the rail hub proposal. In order properly to gauge the strength of feeling among residents on the matter, last year I issued a survey to all residents in the Fosse villages. I received almost 2,000 responses in less than four weeks—a huge return for a survey of that nature.
Almost 80% of Fosse village respondents said that they were against the development, with impacts on local infrastructure and the environment being the predominant concerns. Furthermore, more than 83% responded that they thought it would be detrimental to their village’s identity.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will be pleased to ask my team to share the data with him. Perhaps we can consider what further surveys we might wish to do jointly, given the joint impact on our constituents.
I fully appreciate and understand the serious concerns of many of my constituents about this proposal. I am pleased to say that some of the brilliant district councillors for the Fosse villages have joined us in the Public Gallery this afternoon. Those councillors have worked tirelessly on behalf of their local residents—their electorate—to oppose the plans. They have attended every public meeting and every engagement event. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of Councillors Maggie Wright, Sheila Scott, Iain Hewson, David Freer and Deanne Woods, to name but a few.
The reasonings against the proposal are varied in their multitude, but they are all of equal importance. With little or no legislation in place governing the provision and placement of such logistic hubs, I fear that rural areas such as South Leicestershire and Burbage common, which already carry their fair share and do their part, are being somewhat overburdened. Will the Minister, the Department and the Secretary of State—I know that the Minister will discuss the matter with him—kindly look into it and consider my constituents’ concerns, to ensure that the plans for the Hinckley rail hub and similar such proposals are given the scrutiny they require and deserve? Will they commit to ensuring that the views of the people of South Leicestershire, Hinckley and Bosworth are properly taken into account before any decision is made?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) for securing a debate that is clearly important to many people in his constituency and beyond its borders. We have had an informative discussion.
Before describing our policy on the development of strategic rail freight interchanges, I am glad to be able to provide some context for this debate. As a Government, we absolutely recognise the important benefits that rail freight offers to the United Kingdom, including substantial benefits for the environment, as one of the most carbon-efficient ways to move goods over long distances. The sector also delivers economic and social benefits through cost savings to industry, and by supporting employment and reducing congestion, with rail freight resulting in 7.2 million fewer lorry journeys each year. Industry estimates that rail freight provides £1.7 billion of benefits to the United Kingdom economy.
The Government are committed to the growth of the rail freight sector and recognise the role of rail freight in helping Government to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Between 2014 and 2019, Government invested £235 million in improving capacity and capability for rail freight. Recently, we also increased by 28%, to £20 million, the budget for a freight grant scheme to support the carriage of freight by rail and water on routes where road haulage has an advantage.
To be helpful, I will also set out the purpose of strategic rail freight interchanges. Such interchanges are large multi-purpose rail freight interchange and distribution centres linked to both the rail and the trunk road systems. They enable freight to be transferred efficiently between transport modes. Many rail freight movements are unable to undertake a full end-to-end journey for relevant goods.
The development of a network of strategic rail freight interchanges is a key element in reducing the cost to users of moving more freight by rail and in reducing the number of freight movements on our road. The interchanges also facilitate important trade links, improve international connectivity and enhance port growth. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire acknowledged, it is Government policy to support the development of an expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges. We consider the interchanges to be of national significance.
My hon. Friend has a specific interest in the proposal for the Hinckley national rail freight interchange in South Leicestershire. From this debate and others, I know that he is a passionate advocate for his community. He is absolutely right to bring this debate to the Chamber, and he has made his thoughts and concerns heard at a ministerial level. Absolutely, we are having those discussions with the Secretary of State. Importantly, this debate has been a good opportunity for us to understand the depth of feeling in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Let me reassure him that he has absolutely achieved the objective of ensuring that his voice is heard at that level, and residents across South Leicestershire are having their voices heard, too.
I join my hon. Friend in placing on the record my gratitude to Councillor Maggie Wright, representing Normanton ward, Councillor Iain Hewson, representing Stanton and Flamville ward, and other councillors. I know they all have strongly held views on this issue and that residents will be grateful for the diligent and professional way in which they have approached the matter, working with their Member of Parliament to bring this case to the House today.
I understand that the Hinckley SRFI proposals are at the pre-application stage. As part of the process, the developer has held two rounds of informal consultation on its proposals, which has included a number of public exhibitions. When the applicant submits the development consent order application to the Planning Inspectorate, my hon. Friend’s constituents, as interested parties, will be able to make representations in writing on the scheme. During the examination process, interested parties are invited to provide more details of their views in writing or they can speak at hearings. I know that my hon. Friend will use those mechanisms to again raise his concerns about the impact on the local environment, but I am very happy to ensure that a record of our debate today is also included in the process.
I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that as the proposed strategic rail freight interchange in question is currently in the planning process, I am not able to comment, as the Minister responsible for local government, on the specific merits of the proposals at this stage. That is because the Government may be asked to opine on the development at a later stage. Under the Planning Act 2008, the Secretary of State for Transport has a quasi-judicial role in issuing decisions on applications for development consent orders for strategic rail freight interchanges.
It may be helpful, though, if I set out the rationale for strategic rail freight interchanges being considered nationally significant infrastructure projects, and the process for considering development consent order planning applications for strategic rail freight interchanges. The nationally significant infrastructure projects regime was established by the 2008 Act and is a bespoke consent regime for nationally significant projects in the fields of energy, transport, water supply, waste water and waste. The regime’s aim is to simplify and speed up planning consent for such projects by reducing the number of separate applications and permits that are required and enabling faster decision making. That helps the benefits of nationally significant infrastructure projects to be realised more quickly.
The Act sets out thresholds that determine which projects must submit applications for consent under the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime. For strategic rail freight interchanges, that means that a development larger than 60 hectares and capable of receiving at least four trains a day is considered nationally significant for the purposes of the regime. Establishing thresholds of that kind provides certainty for our country’s most complex infrastructure schemes. The statutory timescales under the regime give applicants and communities predictability, which is essential to provide the confidence needed to bring forward nationally significant infrastructure projects that the country needs. That of course includes strategic rail freight interchanges.
The nationally significant infrastructure projects regime also allows Government, through national policy statements, to set the policies for how schemes are to be considered. The national networks national policy statement, approved by Parliament in 2015, sets out the need for, and Government’s policies to deliver, development of nationally significant infrastructure projects on the national road and rail networks in England. It provides planning guidance for promoters of nationally significant infrastructure projects on the road and rail networks. It also provides the basis for the examination by the Planning Inspectorate and decisions by the Secretary of State for Transport. The Secretary of State uses it as the primary basis for making decisions on development consent applications for strategic rail freight interchanges and other national network significant infrastructure projects in England.
The national policy statement provides a clear framework for strategic rail freight interchange developers, local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate. Planning guidance set out in the national policy statement for national networks states that
“a network of SRFIs is needed…to serve regional, sub-regional and cross-regional markets.”
Furthermore, it states that there is a “compelling need” for an expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges. It does not, however, specify where those interchanges should be located. Instead, it provides a framework for private sector developers to bring forward proposals through the planning system if they are deemed to be operationally and commercially viable.
This is one of our core problems—the lack of Government guidance on where these logistics parks or nationally significant infrastructure developments should be located. I would be grateful if the Minister could ask the Secretary of State or the other responsible Minister to write to me about the lack of a Government framework policy on the location of large logistics parks.
I am very happy to have that conversation and ensure that my hon. Friend receives the information and assurance that he has asked for.
The development consent order planning application is tightly bound by statutory timescales that Parliament has set. The application and examination in respect of a proposed development is undertaken by the Planning Inspectorate, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport. The inspectorate will decide whether the application meets the required standards before proceeding to an examination. I can assure my hon. Friend that the views of communities affected by interchanges are fully taken into account as part of the planning process.
In deciding whether the application can progress to examination, the inspectorate will consider whether the developer has fulfilled its statutory duty to consult local communities and local authorities affected by the scheme. Indeed, community engagement is fundamental to the nationally significant infrastructure projects regime’s operation. Developers are required to consult extensively before an application is submitted and considered; and where the consultation has not been carried out in line with the statutory requirements, the Planning Inspectorate can refuse to accept the application. Local authorities and communities also have the right to be involved during the examination of a project: they can set out their views in written representations, which can then be taken into account in decision making.
Local authorities also have a particular role to play in the development consent order application process. In addition to submitting written representations, relevant local authorities can submit a local impact report, which sets out details of the potential impacts of the proposed scheme on the authority’s area and how it envisages that those impacts could be mitigated. The examining authority and the Secretary of State must have regard to that under the 2008 Act. The Planning Inspectorate has six months to carry out the examination of the proposed development, which may include a public inquiry, where the views of the affected communities can be expressed.
A report of the findings and conclusions in respect of the proposed development, including a recommendation, is then issued by the Planning Inspectorate to the Secretary of State within three months. The Secretary of State then has three months to issue a decision on the proposal. If for any reason a decision cannot be issued in that time, a written ministerial statement setting out a new deadline will need to be laid in Parliament.
I assure my hon. Friend that in considering any proposed development, the Planning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State weigh its adverse impacts against the benefits. That includes the facilitation of economic development, including job creation, housing and environmental improvement, any long-term or wider benefit and any longer-term and cumulative adverse impacts, as well as any measure to avoid, reduce or compensate for those impacts.
I will not, because I am about to conclude.
The rail freight sector is vital to the prosperity of the United Kingdom economy, delivers important social benefits and is key to meeting net zero targets. An expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges is key to harnessing the benefits of rail freight, and the Government support the development of that network. We of course do not specify where the locations should be. We believe that it is for private sector developers to bring forward proposals that are viable and have regard to the guidance of the policy statement.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire for initiating the debate. I want to reassure him again—he can be assured—that his community’s voice will be heard in the course of the process. I thank him for the discussions that we have had and for today’s debate. I want now to leave him a short time to sum up the debate.