It was a genuine pleasure to be invited to speak on the 21st April at Roade Parish Council’s public meeting about the two proposed strategic rail freight interchanges (SRFI), which I understand are locally now known as Gargantuan Northampton Central. The meeting was vastly oversubscribed, demonstrating the strength of local feeling on this, and I am sorry that not everyone could make it into the Hall; however, I was very glad to also be able to speak directly to those outside and hear their views. As you know, I’ve been working to support residents who are concerned about the developments since we first learned about Rail Central in 2015 and subsequently Northampton Gateway in 2016, and I have heard from literally hundreds of people in that time.
As I made clear at the meeting, I completely support the Government’s strategy for a modal shift of freight from road to rail. As Environment Secretary and as a former Energy Minister, I can say that the principle is very sound and, when delivered correctly, can bring a wide range of benefits.
However, I stand by the points I made at the meeting when I said that it is incumbent upon the developers to prove that a) there is a need for an SRFI in our area, b) that the local infrastructure can support the development, and c) that appropriate environmental mitigations are taken.
I am not convinced, from the extensive and considered concerns that local residents have raised with me, that either proposal currently meets the above criteria. Indeed, many constituents have made clear that there is not the employment need in the area (South Northants has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country – 0.7 per cent), that the local roads cannot sustain what would inevitably be an increased volume of HGV and commuter traffic, that there is already existing unused warehousing capacity at the nearby Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal which is currently undergoing its second expansion, that other similar developments (particularly by one of the developers, Roxhill) have not had their proposed rail connection completed, and that there is no capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML).
It should also be noted that, although the developers have stated that until 2026 only two freight paths would be needed on the WCML for their proposals, the Department for Transport’s Strategic Rail Freight Interchange Policy Guidance clearly states that “as a minimum, a SRFI should be capable of handling four trains per day and, where possible, be capable of increasing the number of trains handled”. In meetings I have had with Network Rail on behalf of local residents, Network Rail have said that they do not believe that at present there is sufficient capacity on the WCML for the freight paths required by the proposals, and they are undertaking detailed studies of this section of the line to better understand the current capacity constraints. My understanding is that planning consent cannot be granted on the basis of possible future freight paths, but only on the existing status quo – which is clearly insufficient given the policy guidance requirements of four trains per day.
Again, as I said at the meeting, my role as your Member of Parliament is to represent your views and concerns. I am exceptionally grateful to you and Stop Rail Central for putting them to me, as have many hundreds of other residents who have made similar points. Just to be very clear, no planning application has been submitted for either proposal; when and if that happens, I shall formally raise your concerns alongside the many others I have received. On behalf of my constituents, and for the reasons set out above, I will be doing all that I can to hold both developers fully to account as they progress their plans.
As ever, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me if I can be of help on this or any other issue.
With best wishes,
Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire
Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs