One year on: thoughts from the chairman

So the NIMBYs are at it again. Up in arms about a few sheds, some cars, a couple of HGVs and some trains. They should be thinking about the greater good: the ability to import more goods from China (even quicker), the reduction in carbon as a result of taking lorries off the roads, the thousands of new jobs that would be created for the local community. They really should stop complaining that over 3,000 lives will be completely ruined and start to focus on the positives. Shouldn’t they?

In January 2016 the people of Milton Malsor and Blisworth were informed that a developer (Ashfield Land) from Bristol wanted to build a 650 acre warehouse park and rail interchange (Rail Central) between their two villages, a development which would destroy their rural environment and lifestyle, be operational 24 hours and bring with it significant additional traffic and 24 hour noise, light and air pollution. A development covering an area larger than Towcester with a transient working population of approximately the same size being dropped unceremoniously, and without care, between two historic villages and three conservation areas.

Stop Rail Central Ltd (SRC) was formed to oppose this development. The original motivation could be construed as purely NIMBYist but we are not talking about a few wind turbines, we are talking about the complete decimation of a rural environment and village way of life, not to mention the destruction of a number of homes that just happen to be in the way. So if you want to call us NIMBYs, NIMBYs we are happy to be. The feelings of the community are clear and close to 6,000 signatures and hundreds of letters of complaint (so far) sent to the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom are more than enough evidence of the strength of feeling. Mrs Leadsom has commented that the level of opposition has been overwhelming, even in comparison to HS2, and that the protest group is one of the best co-ordinated she has worked with. SRC are equally as full of praise for their MP whose full and unequivocal support has been paramount to maintaining motivation and momentum.

At the appropriate time in the planning process SRC are more than happy to argue their case, which they believe is strong, to save the wanton destruction of 650 acres of productive farmland, wildlife and veteran trees.

But there is more to this development than the local environmental impact. Early on in the campaign SRC were contacted by the University of Northampton, with whom they have been working very closely ever since. A Professor of logistics, who firmly believes that freight should be moved off the road and onto rail (and who has no NIMBYist agenda) told SRC that Rail Central was being brought forward “in the wrong place and at the wrong time”. Subsequent work and research carried out by both SRC and the University has produced robust evidence that this is, in fact, the case, and this evidence will be shared with the Planning Inspectorate at the appropriate time.

But how is this able to happen? Surely the Government would not allow a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange, which is classified as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) to be brought forward in the wrong place? Unfortunately this is not the case. Government policy has laid down four high level aspirations for SRFIs, which includes both reducing carbon and moving freight off the roads. Policy guidance on how these aspirations can realistically be achieved and where such “strategic” rail interchanges should be located is not detailed but what guidance there is suggests that Northampton is not the right place. The consequence is that private developers, driven purely by a profit motive, can put forward a piece of land that they happen to own, engage expensive consultants, and attempt to make a case as to why they should be allowed build in a particular location, even if it is clearly, for a number of reasons, the wrong location. Without more detailed strategic guidance from the government this abuse will continue. In the last 5 years no fewer than 7 such SRFIs have been proposed in the Midlands alone, two have already been consented and the rest are going through the process. In the case of Rail Central they are attempting to utilise the most congested railway in Europe at the same time as the consented DIRFT extension is looking to increase the number of freight trains it receives from the same stretch of railway track. Lack of rail capacity is the fundamental issue but economics also plays a part: rail freight is less economic than road freight in the UK due to the short distances involved and without government intervention, or significant changes in economic circumstances, that will remain so. The government believe that by building more warehouses near a rail connection this will lead to a modal shift but this might be more wishful thinking than an economic reality. Patterns of distribution are changing and the model of large National Distribution Centres (NDCs) in the middle of the country is being challenged by alternative models such as distribution from the ports. If all the proposed SRFIs get built there will be a significant oversupply of warehousing, a railway system that does not have the capacity to supply them and, as a result, an increase in traffic on our busy highways as the warehouses become primarily road based logistics facilities.

The only tangible “benefit” of Rail Central being proferred by the developer is additional jobs for the local community. Unfortunately it is not the local community that will take up the majority of any new jobs in logistics; these will be taken up by workers travelling from further afield, worsening road congestion and negating any potential reduction in carbon emissions gained by moving freight onto the rail by the increased length of journeys to work. The low unemployment rate in South Northants also means that people taking up positions in the new logistics facilities will more than likely be moving from other warehouses in the local vicinity: job relocation rather than creation. It is also worth noting that moving freight by rail does not actually reduce the number of road transits, it just changes their starting point. If one train carries the equivalent of 75 lorries worth of freight to Rail Central you will still need 75 lorries to pick the freight up: the lorries will just be starting the movement of freight from the middle of the country rather than the ports. One should also consider the fact that the lorries will probably be travelling some distance to pick up the freight (possibly even from the ports) so carbon reduction is in fact negligible, or in some cases, non-existent. It is also a well-known fact within logistics that goods delivered to NDCs in the middle of the country quite often travel back the way they have come, often right back as far as the ports (thus doubling the journeys rather than reducing them). It is a fact that our country is not big enough to make rail freight economic and to facilitate a modal shift: rail freight was ideal for coal movement but this has now come to an end.

If you need any further evidence that the planning system is being abused by developers with the singular objective of private profit, you need look no further than the land adjacent to Rail Central where developer Roxhill has just lodged an application to build an almost identical facility (Northampton Gateway) using the same stretch of congested railway line to “supposedly” remove freight off the road and make significant reductions in carbon emissions. The West Coast Main Line requires at least a £400 million investment to free up sufficient capacity to allow one more freight path per hour and there is, as yet, no commitment by the Government to make this investment. When DIRFT is complete they anticipate processing a further 16 trains per day so the question has to be asked: where will Ashfield Land (and/or Roxhill) find the paths to make their proposal(s) viable?

Roxhill attempted to develop the adjacent site in previous years with Howdens as the main tenant. They withdrew, primarily because the site is not allocated for development under the West Northants Joint Core Strategy (the local development plan) but also due to the unpopularity of the proposal. Roxhill soon worked out that the only way to develop the land at this time was to circumvent the local planning legislation and go straight to government via the NSIP route (as Ashfield Land had worked out a few years previously). They told SRC earlier in the year, categorically, that they had no intention of building a SRFI after the problems they had with the East Midlands Gateway.

As if fighting against one opportunist and ill-placed rail freight interchange is not enough, the local community now has to fight two at the same time. The government carry out modelling on future warehouse demand and not even their most optimistic of predictions show justification for one, let alone two of these monstrous warehouse parks. The cumulative effects of two developments on pollution, stress on local services and amenities and the vast increases of traffic will be devastating for many more thousands in the community not directly affected by the blight, visual impairment and noise. SRC are currently lobbying central government to make a decision as to whether both ill-conceived and vastly unpopular proposals should both be allowed to proceed through the whole planning process. Surely the capacity constraints on the WCML alone should prevent this happening.

For regular updates on what is happening go to www.stoprailcentral.co.uk

Final thought. Developers have no way of knowing, when they build a SRFI, whether any of the tenants will actually use the railway (and there is no requirement for them to do so). This is considered by Government to be a commercial gamble/risk. It is not a gamble because the developer could not care less if the tenants use the rail so long as they have a tenant. It may be some years before a single train enters a new SRFI, or it might not even happen at all. In the Midlands we currently have two SRFIs consented and being built at DIRFT and East Midlands Gateway (another Roxhill development). That is circa 14 million square feet over the next few years that might, or might not be rail served. How much sense does it make to build another 13 million square feet when we do not even know if the first 14 million square feet will help remove HGVs from the road? As stated above it is not only the wrong place but it is also highly premature. Surely the Government MUST see what happens with the first two before consenting even more.

Developers are jumping on a huge bandwagon (or loophole) to get these things through before the Government realises that their policy may need reviewing, is being blatantly abused, and may ultimately fail.