250 residents from south Northamptonshire villages attended the Roade Parish Council meeting to express their concerns over the Ashfield Land and Roxhill rail freight proposals. Much like the Blisworth Parish Council meeting in January 2016 the weight of feeling was such that dozens of local people were left outside straining to hear the proceedings.
The Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom was in attendance to give her views on the strategic elements of the ‘strategic’ rail freight policy and to reinforce her support for the local residents. Directors Andrew Fisher and James Digby of Ashfield Land turned up but took the decision to let their high profile PR consultant Ben Copithorne answer questions from the floor. Roxhill chose not to attend instead sending three hired consultants to face the anxious and concerned public (which I guess will not do much to endear them to the locals).
Questions from the floor covered many topics including air pollution, traffic chaos, the deficiencies in traffic modelling, how such developments are meant to ‘save’ the environment, development creep and the effect of the proposed by-pass on horse riders, walker s and those unlucky enough to live right next to it.
However, the main topic of debate was the question of need, an issue that SRC have focused on in depth over the last year. Our views and contentions were clearly echoed by David Nene of Roade who has 40 years’ experience in high profile jobs in logistics. He passionately stated that rail freight does not work due to economics, flexibility and the short distances associated with distribution in the UK. He suggested that not one operator in the UK has managed to turn a profit and the failure of DIRFT to effectively function as a SRFI is a prime example of a flawed policy. The statement made by Ben Copithorne in his opening presentation that “Rail Central is here because of the Railway” belied a complete lack of understanding of the National Networks National Policy. The location of SRFIs are not dictated by the railway: the railway is a facilitator and a necessity. SRFIs are not stand alone developments, they are nodes in a network and those nodes have to be located strategically ‘across the regions’ to effectively serve the UK and this means being close to the markets they will serve (not all in one place and away from the major markets). Whilst there is a potentially an argument for one SRFI in Northamptonshire, there is clearly not a need for any more.
With one SRFI in operation, two under development, four at pre-application stage and at least one more potentially coming forward later in the year (a minimum of 7 within a 30 mile radius of Coventry) it was suggested that the title of the National Networks National Policy Statement might have to be changed to the ‘Regional Cluster National Policy Statement’.
When Ashfield and Roxhill were asked to explain what evidence they had to back up their contention that theirs was an appropriate location, neither had an answer. As an aside, a letter received from Ian Rigby on the same day informed us that Roxhill had commissioned an ‘independent’ market report which ‘will provide a helpful and clear explanation of how the Northampton Gateway proposals would directly deliver the national policy of delivering an expanded network of SRFIs to serve the economic needs of the UK economy, while also contributing directly towards environmental policy objectives with a shift from road to rail’. As Roxhill already appear to have concluded that this report ‘will’ show how Roxhill’s proposal will deliver the requisite benefits, we are not hopeful of a balanced and unbiased conclusion. Maybe it would have more credibility had they commissioned a report to assess “whether” (not will) and if they had done this before they chose their site.
In addition they stated that the analysis will be based on Government forecasts of a doubling of rail freight by 2030. We already know that these forecasts are a house of cards based on a guess of how many rail connected warehouses might be built. The forecast model then assumes this estimated number of warehouses will all utilise the rail, which is the second massive leap of faith. We eagerly await Roxhill’s ‘independent’ market report.
Throughout the evening facts were scarce and nothing new was learned by those that have been involved in campaigns for some time. The lack of clarity around rail capacity and viability continues to frustrate with neither developer having progressed significantly with the GRIP process and Andrea Leadsom suggesting that Network Rail have concerns over capacity. Unfortunately for all concerned there is unlikely to be any clarity for some time. One thing to note is that Roxhill only have aspirations for two trains per day (not guaranteed) until 2026 meaning that at least up until then theirs will be a road based facility. With what we currently know it is also highly likely to remain as such. Neither developer chose to mention the Government reduction in the Mode Shift Revenue Support Grant (subsidy for freight hauliers) which will force many thousands of hauliers back onto the road and significantly dent the aspirations of rail freight.
On the same day Radio Northampton interviewed logistics specialist Pip Dunn, and asked him his views on the siting of both SRFIs. He stated that the plan to build more so close to DIRFT and on the WCML was “intriguing” and wondered why the Developers were not looking to develop sites further away from existing SRFIs, suggesting that Alconbury on the A1(M) might be a more interesting proposition that would better fulfil the ‘across the regions’ stipulation in the National Policy Statement.
Towards the end of the meeting a resident of Roade asked what compensation there might be for the diminution in the value of his house upon which his retirement depends. There was never going to be a positive answer to this question but it lead to Ashfield Land being question on how many residents would be affected and what compensation had been offered. Ashfield Land stated that there were no residents wholly within the site and were left mightily embarrassed when it was pointed out to them that there are residents whose houses will be destroyed by the warehouses. It is a sad state of affairs when an opposition group knows more about a development than the developer.
When asked the crucial question “could these SRFIs both co-exist side by side” James Digby of Ashfield Land stated that this was for the Planning Inspectorate to decide; a stance somewhat at odds with the response he gave to the same question in September 2016 when he was clearly of the opinion that they could both be accommodated.
On a final point, Christine Woolhead, a resident of Railway Cottages, whose house will end up facing an 18 metre high warehouse wall if the development should ever proceed, honed in on the arrogance shown by Ashfield Land by using the term ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ when referring to the fate of the Rail Central proposal.