OPINION: Are these rail depots the most unfair major schemes that Northampton has ever seen?
When a planned rail depot measuring five million square feet is seen as a relatively piffling affair, you know sizeable things are afoot in the countryside just outside Northampton.
The Northampton Gateway scheme - revealed by the Chron this week - is the second enormous rail freight / warehouse proposal to hit the area south of the town in the last 12 months.
Residents would normally have reacted with horror, only they haven’t the time as they are currently still fighting the similar 8 million square feet plan that was dropped on them just before Christmas last year.
The reasons why both plans rankle are lengthy – but one thing that struck many immediately was that nobody living in Northamptonshire gets to make the final decision.
Rail depots are deemed so useful to the UK because of the HGVs that they take off our motorways and ‘A’ roads that - like nuclear power stations and major new airport runways - they are taken out of the hands of local councillors.
Fair enough for the rest of the country and its ailing economy, as well as for the logistics and warehouse workers rubbing their hands.
And the newer scheme - which has been revealed in the last few days and allows any objectors four weeks to research it - would also include a, to some welcome, bypass around the west of Roade.
But what about the villages of Milton Malsor, Blisworth, Collingtree and Roade?
Indeed what about local democracy?
The exciting-sounding Planning Inspectorate is the body that listens to the dissenting MPs and the councillors - and, yes, the people whose villages would forever after be joined to
Northampton - and filters these into a tick in the ‘yes’ box or the ‘no’ box.
What rouses the ire of the above mentioned, however, is nobody in the London office has to live here, with the concrete consequences or with the pressure to get it right.
Council planners are essential to large infrastructure projects because the good ones are sensitive to the local feelings for and against it.
And it does help that they are around to experience the effects and opinions in the aftermath.
But that is not all. Both schemes represent that hot issue in Northampton at the moment of developments being plonked at the edge of town with all the negatives (and positives) but the developer’s millions go to town halls based several miles away.
The controversies do not end there. Collingtree Parish Council, for one, believes Roxhill are “seeking to circumvent local planning control” by presenting the Northampton Gateway project as a ‘nationally significant infrastructure’.
Parish councillors - who fought off a smaller scheme by Howdens on the same land last year - are adamant that Northampton Gateway is nothing more than just another large warehouse complex with some limited capacity to accept rail freight.
Some would argue that the DIRFT Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) at Daventry is only a few miles away and has at least 20 years future capacity.
And experts say there are only a limited number of warehouse occupiers that can maximise the benefits of an SRFI and this leads to fears from parish councillors that what Roxhill propose will simply offer an alternative to existing strategic warehouse facilities such as Mouton Park and Brackmills.
Specialist consultants Baker Rose have already concluded that this site is unlikely to attract rail freight-based warehouse operators.
They say that for operators, the scheme would be distributing into some of the most congested sectors of the M1 and M40, without the benefit of being close to a large conurbation to serve.
And they add that the scheme is too far south to service the UK’s current manufacturing supply chain.
But whatever the pros and cons, local people feel the biggest loss in the process is direct Northampton decision making.
Rod Sellers, from Collingtree, said it was pressure exerted on the local authority that led to the Howdens scheme on the land being dropped last June. He said: “It’s worrying that this time it’s a fast track process that we really have no control over in
Northamptonshire. “The warehouse scheme by Howdens was rejected after 500 people, and two MPs raised concerns. There will be no local planning committee to listen to us this time.”
Northampton Gateway will agitate Milton Malsor residents in particular as they are also currently fighting the Rail Central plan, which would effectively join it to Blisworth.
However, they have the advantage of months of research - backed by the Stop Rail Central campaign group - and will see a presentation by developer Roxhill at its parish council meeting of November 8 (starting 7.30pm).
By contrast, parish councillors in Collingtree are yet to be contacted by Roxhill almost two weeks after the plans were published, despite only being separated from the planned site by the M1.
Mr Sellers said: “It has been dropped on us. Like the Howdens scheme, we appear to be a bit of a blind spot.
“It looks like we’ll have to fight our way into this again.”