It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend 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.