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Northampton Gateway Rail Freight Interchange: Development Consent Order Waiver

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the development consent order waiver for the Northampton Gateway Rail Freight Interchange.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I am gravely concerned about the impact of insensitive overdevelopment in my constituency of South Northamptonshire. Local knowledge is too often overlooked in favour of the “national interest” by national planning inspectors who disregard the wishes and needs of communities. There is no better example of that than the strategic rail freight interchange—known as the SRFI—currently under construction at junction 15 of the M1, which offers no benefit to my constituents, yet means a huge increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic congestion. That is why I have called this debate: to highlight the plight that my constituents, by virtue of living the middle of England, are currently facing.

As per annex D of the Department for Transport’s “Strategic Rail Freight Network: The Longer Term Vision” document, the definition of a strategic rail freight interchange is a

“large multi-purpose rail freight interchange containing rail-connected warehousing and container handling facilities. The site may also contain manufacturing and processing activities. The aim of an SRFI is to optimise the use of rail in the freight journey by minimising some elements of the secondary distribution leg by road through co-location of other distribution and freight activities.”

The key point is this:

“SRFIs are a key element in reducing the cost to users of moving freight by rail and therefore are important in facilitating the transfer of freight from road to rail.”

SFRIs are designed to support the modal shift in our transportation network from road to rail. I support that in principle, but logically they should surely be located near ports and other starting points for freight coming into the country—not slap bang in the middle of it, where the obvious attraction is in fact the motorway network.

South Northamptonshire has been blighted by a massive increase in the number of unwelcome warehousing development applications in recent years. Those include major warehousing applications around Northampton, Towcester and Cosgrove, when in fact existing sites at DIRFT, Panattoni and Swan Valley—only a few miles away—are still not fully occupied. There is no identifiable need for yet another logistics park in our area, with massive warehousing that is justified only by a rail link, thereby suggesting it is somehow strategic.

The plan to build the SRFI was universally unpopular among my constituents, with hundreds objecting at the planning stage. At the planning inquiry, many questioned whether the promised rail link would ever be built to connect the SRFI to the west coast main line, which itself is already at full capacity with passenger trains. I even met Network Rail representatives in Parliament, who told me it is unlikely that a rail link would be available until High Speed 2 phase 1 had been completed. As colleagues will know, that is likely to be still many years in future.

Previous development plans for the site of the SRFI had been blocked for many years by local planners who were concerned about maintaining this beautiful greenfield site, close to the nearby historic village of Collingtree. However, in what many residents saw as a cynical move to circumvent local planners, the land owners—a development corporation—searched around for a nationally significant infrastructure project and hit upon the idea of constructing an SFRI to achieve their lucrative development plans. Despite massive local opposition, planning permission was granted by the Government’s planning inspector for the SRFI to go ahead with the one, clear proviso that it would have to have completed its rail link before beginning any operation.

SEGRO took over the development of the site and—lo and behold—as the site neared completion last year, it applied for a development consent order waiver, asking the Department for Transport to overturn the condition requiring the rail link to be completed so it could start to fill up its warehouses and flood local roads with HGVs even before the rail link was established. It seems clear to me that this project was always about forcing more warehousing into the heart of England to take advantage of motorway access from south Northamptonshire and never about making it easier to move freight off the road and on to the rail network.

The Department for Transport granted the DCO waiver in April 2023, and while a rail link has now been offered by Network Rail, that was not the case at the time the waiver was granted. There is a now clear need to change the way such projects are evaluated and managed from a planning perspective. In the meantime, the residents of Collingtree, Roade, Blisworth, Stoke Bruerne, Shutlanger, Ashton and many others have had their lives blighted by endless road closures on the A508 and hours of delays at junctions 15 and 15A on the M1 as improvements required by the DCO have been carried out on the roads and roundabouts to make them suitable for the new warehousing and the endless HGV traffic.

South Northamptonshire residents are by no means NIMBYs. Most people in my area would recognise that in order to grow our economy and allow families to build their lives, we need new houses as well as employment sites. In fact, Northamptonshire is one of the fastest growing parts of the country and we have taken far more than our fair share of new development. All we ask is that developments should be in keeping with the character of the area and the established consent of local people.

At the SEGRO Logistics Park Northampton, we have a strategic rail freight interchange site full of warehousing in an area with existing warehousing that is not even fully in use, a rail link that is not yet functioning and yet more of our countryside concreted over. This madness must end. National infrastructure planning must take account of local needs. Can the Minister tell me what the Government can do to ensure that, where developers apply for nationally significant infrastructure projects, the planning inspector looks at the local need and the local infrastructure, as well as the national interest, so we can stop these cynical plans to make a fast buck?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship—if such a word exists—Mrs Latham. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate on an issue that I am well aware is of great importance to both her and her constituents. Although the decisions were not made during my tenure, I have found the correspondence submitted by my right hon. Friend to the Department over the years to be interesting reading. I recognise the case she raises and hope I can address some of those points. She specifically asked what can be done by Government to ensure that the planning inspector balances local needs with the national interest. I hope I can give her more detail on that.

To give some background, strategic rail freight interchanges, or SRFIs as I will refer to them, and their associated infrastructure are key to enabling the efficient transportation of goods around the country and supporting modal shift of freight from road to rail. Indeed, as a Department, we are looking to increase the volumes of freight and set targets to increase growth when it comes to rail freight. However, SRFIs are privately funded projects and it is therefore for industry to come forward with applications for new schemes in locations that they consider to be operationally and commercially viable.

I note my right hon. Friend’s view that SRFIs should be located near ports or other starting points for freight coming into the country. However, to maximise the use of rail in the freight journey, freight needs to be loaded on to trains at ports, which have their own rail terminals, and then transported by rail to an SRFI. There, the goods are unloaded on to another route mode—usually a heavy goods vehicle—for distribution to the final destination. Hence, SRFIs must be placed inland near the populations that require the goods to minimise the length of heavy goods vehicle journeys.

It is essential that the impact of such schemes is fully considered. With regard to the new nationally significant SRFI schemes, these require a development consent order under the Planning Act 2008. That Act includes a provision to ensure that relevant local authorities can submit a local impact report setting out details of the likely impact of a proposed development on the authority’s area. There is a legal duty for those to be fully considered as part of the decision-making process. Applications for nationally significant SRFI projects are tested during the planning process against the national networks national policy statement. It provides a robust policy framework that outlines the impacts that developers and decision makers need to consider when submitting and deciding an application for an SRFI.

To come to my right hon. Friend’s last point and key question about ensuring that things are done differently in future, I should say that the current national networks NPS, which has been in place since 2015, is being reviewed following an announcement in July 2021. Within the revised draft national networks NPS consulted on earlier this year, there are requirements for developers to engage with local stakeholders on and mitigate the impacts of SRFIs on local communities. The consultation draft included new text to ensure that the location of existing SRFIs is considered to ensure that they are strategically located, that they do not abstract traffic from a nearby extant SRFI and that consideration is given to proposals for SRFIs in areas where there is lesser provision.

I will provide more context. My right hon. Friend might be more interested in the bullet points that I list of where changes may ensue, and she may reflect on how that would work with the particular application that she references. The differences introduced in the draft but not yet finalised are the new version references providing appropriate parking facilities to support HGV driver wellbeing—not as relevant, I admit. Rail infrastructure capable of rail connections should be present from the outset and delivered in a timely manner.

I will complete these points and then I certainly will. There is recognition that warehousing may be needed before the rail terminal is connected to the rail network, but the applicant has to provide evidence of discussions with Network Rail on connection, and the DCO may include requirements for the rail terminal to be operational within a certain timescale or development threshold. I know that that will also no doubt cause interest. The last point is that it is specified that consideration should be given to ensuring that existing SRFI locations are taken into account when making an application to ensure there is a strategic network of SRFIs and that a new SRFI does not just take traffic from an existing facility. These are all points that will be of interest.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Exactly as he says, the key point is that the development consent order waiver was given without any evidence of the rail link being provided. That is outrageous because it shows that the issue was always just about warehousing.

My hon. Friend said that the idea of a rail freight interchange is that the freight could come by rail to the SRFI or, indeed, go from the SRFI by rail. In fact, what the DCO waiver did was to allow freight to come in by lorry and leave by lorry—in other words, it is just a logistics park. At the time the waiver was given, there was no such guarantee that there would ever be a rail connection. I find that utterly objectionable. For the sake of local communities, if a DCO waiver is strategic and has therefore ridden roughshod over the views of local planners, it should never be allowed until that rail network has been committed to. Otherwise, it just becomes a means for developers to sneak in under the radar, disregarding the views of local communities.

My right hon. Friend makes a compelling point, and that is the reason why I went off script and into the detail of where the changes would specifically be made in a manner that would be more reflective of where she sees the issues and challenges. She would be right: when I look at the correspondence she raised and the meetings that she had with Network Rail, Network Rail confirmed that it had no plans to see the link up between the west coast main line and that terminal. I totally understand how she would see the entire scheme as a road freight logistics warehouse rather than a rail freight one. I can give her comfort on that particular point, and she is right that, if the points I listed had been in place at the time the application was made, things might have been viewed differently.

At least there would have been more assurance or requirement to ensure that the rail link was either delivered at the time or that there was confirmation from Network Rail that a rail link would be in place. I know she did not receive that, which is why I have given her that information. Perhaps she can reflect that she would have had a strong point with the arguments she made.

I would like to make a little more progress. I am aware that the nature of nationally significant infrastructure projects, or NSIPs, means that they can have a range of construction and operational impacts on local places and communities. Early engagement between developers and those impacted is key to ensure that impacts are understood and appropriately mitigated where they cannot be avoided, and that benefits to local communities are maximised. That is why, as part of the Government’s NSIP action plan, brought forward in February of this year, measures are included to support local authorities to engage earlier and more effectively with the NSIP process to support better outcomes for communities.

As part of those reforms, the Government have committed to developing more prescriptive guidance on community engagement expectations, to ensure developers consider at the outset how projects can address concerns of affected communities, and demonstrate how views have been responded to as part of the DCO application. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire has made representations on behalf of her parishes at Blisworth and others in that regard, so I hope that this will strengthen her arguments and case, and shows that her support has been ahead of the game.

I note that my right hon. Friend was prompted to call this debate as a result of concerns about the consent granted in April 2023 by the Secretary of State for Transport for a non-material change to a DCO granted in 2019 for the Northampton strategic rail freight interchange. I acknowledge the concerns that granting that removed the need for a rail link to be delivered. However, the approved amendment granted consent for the occupation of some of the warehousing floor space in advance of the rail connection to the west coast main line, but still required the rail terminal to be delivered, although I hope the points I made earlier give my right hon. Friend more comfort on her views.

At the time when the application for the non-material change was submitted, Network Rail was unable to commit to the precise timing for the construction of the connection to the main line, which harmed the commercial viability of the site. I am pleased to confirm, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, that Network Rail completed the works to connect the facility to the main line in September. I understand that the rail terminal is expected to be fully open later in 2024, so I can reassure my colleague that this is an SRFI with a required rail link, albeit I note her point that it had not been previously.

In conclusion, I hope that I have set out for my right hon. Friend the measures already in place in the DCO process to ensure that the local element of NSIPs is fully considered, as well as future plans to strengthen community engagement and deliver NSIPs that not only deliver a national benefit but optimise local ones. I thank my right hon. Friend for calling the debate. The correspondence I have looked at about the policies impacted and the proposed changes shows that the matters she has brought forward make a good test case for why change is needed. I thank her for giving me that interest and in-depth research into the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.