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Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Communities such as Rossington and Denaby in my right hon. Friend's constituency and Mexborough in my constituency were totally devastated by the previous Government's pit closure programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. That proved Doncaster's economy was over-reliant on the coal industry. How important is this flagship project in allowing towns such as Doncaster further to diversify their economy, so that we are not over-dependent on any one issue and we can have a sustainable future and economic growth in Doncaster?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The project is essential to the future of communities that have relied on traditional industries, such as coal mining. Having said that, we hope to make a contribution to clean coal technology in future with the technology that is available today.

It is crucial to consider how the north of England can contribute to our strategy across the country as a whole. We have had many debates in the House about the opportunities that there are-or have not been-in the north of England. Given that the inland port would be a strategic rail-freight interchange that a number of Government reports have said is essential to the development of transport around the country and to the supply companies that would supply the freight to go on to the stock and the rails, I cannot think of anything more exciting than getting this inland port under way as the next step in Doncaster's future. That is what I want to press upon the Minister today.

The council is, as we are, keen to progress the matter, and a permission could be issued by 1 March 2010. I very much hope that that will not be delayed by an unnecessary public inquiry. The only unresolved issues relate to the Highways Agency and I believe, as does the council, that those can be satisfactorily resolved locally between the Highways Agency, Doncaster metropolitan borough council and the developer, without resorting to a public inquiry.

Doncaster council has been in regular dialogue with the Highways Agency and the developer's consultant since the pre-planning application stage discussions. The purpose of those discussions was to work towards reaching a resolution acceptable to all parties on issues pertaining to the strategic road network. Notwithstanding that, the Highways Agency has said that it has no "in principle" objection to the proposed inland port and that it has full confidence that outstanding issues will be resolved based on its consultation response to the application.

Work is being undertaken by all parties to resolve the remaining three issues: acceptance of the travel plan, agreement by all parties of the detail for the proposed signalisation scheme of M18 junction 3, and the upgrade of the westbound merge layout at junction 3 to accommodate the development traffic. I know that the Highways Agency is keen to consider traffic flows, as is the Department for Transport, but sometimes we are in danger of losing out on the strategic impact of proposals by not allowing them to move faster. That results in a huge cost for local authorities and the developers as the clock keeps ticking and time is wasted.

It should also be noted that the scheme developers will contribute to the upgrading of the M18, so we have a win-win situation, and delay can only cost more for
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everyone concerned. I was therefore surprised to see a letter from the Government Office for Yorkshire and the Humber-I have very good relations with the office and I know that it tries to do things in everyone's best interests-stating that the decision on call-in was in abeyance, possibly for three more months, while the Highways Agency undertook modelling work in relation to the M18. The letter I received from Felicity Everiss stated that the decision is

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that that is an unnecessary and costly delay.

As I have said, the project is crucial to regeneration in this part of Yorkshire, particularly south Yorkshire, and would regenerate a former coal mining community. The site of the inland port is in a dip that lies alongside the disused Rossington colliery. As I have said, it is estimated that the proposal will deliver between 3,000 and 5,000 jobs. I would have expressed joy at the creation of 100 jobs, but we are talking about thousands of jobs. The development is directly accessible from a former mining community, where high levels of deprivation still exist-including employment deprivation-and where alternative prospects are limited unless we get the right development to sustain those communities.

The proposal would contribute to the early implementation stages of the Finningley and Rossington regeneration route scheme, which is a proposed strategic transport scheme that improves accessibility to new job opportunities and contributes to the development of land. The proposal would support the development of a more competitive city region by improving the links between key components in transport infrastructure such as rail freight distribution, Robin Hood airport, the motorway network and the regeneration areas of south Yorkshire and Sheffield city region.

The proposal would also contribute to reducing 5.5 million lorry miles a year on motorway networks and 425,000 tonnes of CO2 a year. The concept of rail freight interchanges, including those set out in the proposal, is supported by Network Rail. In a letter to Doncaster council on 16 March as part of the consultation on the inland port planning application, Network Rail identified Doncaster as a

The concept is also complementary to Network Rail's Control Period 4 investment programme, which includes the upgrade of the Peterborough-Lincoln-Doncaster line to enable it to be used for efficient freight rail.

The proposal also supports the policy of the Department for Transport on strategic rail freight interchanges, particularly the need to establish major rail freight interchanges across the country. It is absolutely clear that the inland port would fit into the transport vision described in the Government's own document on the future planning of transport, "Delivering a Sustainable Transport Strategy", which was published in 2007. The
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executive summary of the subsequent document, "Delivering a Sustainable Transport Strategy: The Logistics Perspective", which was published in December 2008, sets out the fact that central to the Department's goal is the need to

The proposals will result in a private sector investment of approximately £300 million in a regeneration priority area, as identified in the Yorkshire and Humber regional spatial strategy. That investment will support, as one part of the jigsaw, our economic recovery during and after the recession and our future competitiveness.

The proposal would contribute to the intermodal logistics sector in Doncaster, which was also identified in the Yorkshire and Humber regional spatial strategy as a priority sector for Doncaster due to our excellent position on the strategic transport network, our position near the Hull ports and, of course, work force availability. It should also be noted that the proposed development would include 22,000 square metres of green roofs, mainly on ancillary buildings, rather than warehousing; 158 hectares of woodland and agricultural land to accommodate a project to mitigate environmental impacts, including the replacement of ecological features and wetlands and indigenous tree and hedge planting; and funds to support and co-ordinate important training and employment schemes in the local community.

I hope that I have given enough ammunition for my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department to ensure that an early decision can be made. I hope that there will be an early decision not to call it in, based on the submissions that have been made and the points my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough and I have made today, and on an understanding that the matters concerning the Highways Agency can be left to the local authority to resolve in partnership with the agency.

I do not believe that a public inquiry would serve any purpose, other than to delay a project that is good for Rossington, Doncaster and Yorkshire and the Humber. Realistically, we are in a period of speculation about the general election and we all know that in such circumstances there can occasionally be a tendency for Departments to slow down. I hope that that will not be the case and that my hon. Friend the Minister will put his foot is on the accelerator to ensure that schemes that will help us out of the recession and build a better future can proceed without further delay. My hon. Friends and I would be happy to meet him, or any of his ministerial colleagues, to discuss any more details if that would be helpful in getting the matter resolved.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): It has been a while, Mr. Hancock, but it is a pleasure to serve once again under your stewardship. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing the debate. I know that the issue is important to her, her constituents and those living in the local area. I am also aware of her correspondence with the regional director of the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber on the development. I am in an unusual situation today-or
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perhaps not so unusual-as my right hon. Friend is probably better qualified to respond to the debate than I am, so I will continue with that at the back of my mind.

I will start by providing some background information on the proposed development of an inland port at Rossington in Doncaster. A planning application has been made for a new strategic rail-freight interchange called Doncaster inland port. The developers have assembled a 397-hectare site on land west of Rossington, and both north and south of junction 3 of the M18 at Doncaster. As my right hon. Friend stated, the development site would occupy approximately 171 hectares, with the balance being used for landscape, wildlife and flood alleviation.

More specifically, the proposal includes 562,000 square metres of rail-linked warehousing, with an intermodal rail-freight terminal designed to handle national and international consumer freight. A new access road from junction 3 of the M18 is proposed, partially constructing phase 1 of the Finningley and Rossington regeneration route scheme. The site is expected to generate around 5,500 jobs and to attract around £250 million of private-sector investment. As my right hon. Friend stated, given the challenges of the global economic downturn, the creation of any number of jobs, be it 10 or 100, is to be applauded. Given that we are speaking about so many jobs, she is right to say that the Government must take on board the strategic impact of the development on the economy in south Yorkshire. Improvements to the landscape and flood alleviation measures will be undertaken.

I am aware that the proposal is somewhat controversial locally, with objections being raised about the suitability of the site for such a development. My right hon. Friend has put that in perspective by talking about the numbers, the objectors and how some of those concerned no longer object to the development.

Caroline Flint: Is my hon. Friend aware that not one Doncaster councillor, from any party, objected to the scheme, and not one Doncaster councillor voted against it? In fact, as I said in my speech, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which did object and had valid reasons for doing so, removed its objection after successful negotiation.

Mr. Malik: I fully accept that the number of objectors is quite limited, and that it has diminished since the proposal process began.

It might be helpful if I commented on some of the relevant national policy issues raised by the application, some of which my right hon. Friend alluded to. The Government support the transfer of freight from road to rail where it is practical and economically and environmentally sustainable. We recognise that a consistent and effective framework is needed to support the competitive and efficient operation of the UK logistics industry. We also recognise that both private and public investment and consistent planning decisions will be needed to support the strategic development of freight infrastructure.

On the issue of support for longer-term freight growth by rail, rail can deliver goods quickly and reliably to where they are needed and help reduce both congestion on our roads and carbon emissions. For longer-term freight growth and further modal shift to occur, rail needs to be able to compete effectively with heavy goods
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vehicles on the roads. Rail freight has become a vital driver of UK economic growth: it moves coal for electricity generation and aggregates for construction; it makes just-in-time deliveries for the manufacturing sector; and it takes an increasing share of the domestic retail and supermarket supply chain.

Rail freight produces five times less CO2 emissions per tonne carried than road freight, and up to 15 times less noxious emissions. A container train can remove 50 HGVs from our roads. Emissions from HGV traffic have grown significantly since 1990-by 25 to 30 per cent., using the revised assessment from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. HGV traffic is a significant source of greenhouse emissions from transport; it is second only to cars and vans, and international aviation.

A network of strategic rail-freight interchanges is a key element in aiding the transfer of freight from road to rail and in supporting future rail-freight growth. Interchanges of all types will be required to support that, but the Government believe that there is a particular market need for a network of strategic rail-freight interchanges-for large new interchanges with intermodal capacity and rail-connected warehousing-to support the development of rail in the general freight market.

Yorkshire and the Humber is a growth area for the logistics, supply chain and distribution industries. It has good transport links, land and labour availability-including in the political sense. Clusters of activity are already developing in south Yorkshire and parts of the East Riding of Yorkshire. On modal choice and sustainable distribution more generally, we believe that it is important for all modes of transport to be able to compete on equal terms, so that customers can make an informed choice.

Since road transport is currently not required to pay its full external costs, we provide targeted assistance for the use of rail, inland waterways and coastal or short-sea shipping to enable those modes to compete on a level playing field. We also continue to provide our capital support scheme-the freight facilities grant programme-which helps to offset the capital cost of providing rail and water freight-handling facilities.

That said, there are some markets for which mode shift is not appropriate, and for a large number of logistics movements, road haulage remains the only practicable option. We seek to reduce the impact of road freight transport by promoting more efficient freight operations, chiefly through best practice and driver training schemes. However, each planning application must be considered on its own facts and merits.

Let me turn to the role of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It is important to recognise, as my right hon. Friend does, that in considering the application, the Secretary of State would not be responsible for determining the detailed merits of the proposal. The decision is rather whether, under the Government's call-in policy, the application should be called in for determination by the Secretary of State, or whether it should be left to Doncaster council to take the final decision. It is clear from listening to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) that their preference is for the latter.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends may be aware, the kinds of cases that might be called in include those that,
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in the opinion of the Secretary of State, may conflict with national policies on important matters; have significant effects beyond their immediate locality; give rise to substantial regional or national controversy; raise significant architectural and urban design issues; or involve the interests of national security or foreign Governments. Our general approach is not to interfere-I restate, not to interfere-with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. Parliament has entrusted them with responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their areas, and it is right that, in general, they should be free to carry out their duties responsibly and with the minimum of interference.

However, there will be occasions when it may be considered necessary to call in a planning application and have the Secretary of State determine the matter, instead of leaving the decision to the local planning authority. Our policy is to be selective about calling in applications. In general, we will take that step only if the planning issues are of more than local importance. It is worth bearing it in mind that only 0.01 per cent. of all planning applications are called in. Between 2006 and 2008, the number of cases called in fell by more than two thirds, and the numbers are still falling.

It is clear, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley suggests, that a decision to call in adds significantly to the costs for all parties involved, and adds significant delay to the process. That is why we are keen to use the power selectively, especially in the current economic climate. She was absolutely right to stress that point. Looking forward, my Department has committed to leading a review of the call-in process, with the aim of achieving significant time savings. The review will report in early March. Obviously, that information is not directly relevant, but I hope that it will be useful.

The current application was formally received by the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber on 1 December, following referral by Doncaster metropolitan borough council under the terms of the Town and Country Planning (Development Plans and Consultation) (Departures) Directions 1999. The application was referred because the proposals would be a departure from the provisions of the Doncaster unitary development plan, as the application site falls within the green belt.

On 3 December, the Highways Agency formally requested the Government office not to proceed to consider the application until such time as the motorway impact issues had been resolved. It was anticipated that that could take up to-I stress, up to-three months. Obviously, it could take much less time, notwithstanding where we are. The Government office's view was that there were some substantial highway issues still to be addressed, which, while unresolved, would mean that any decision taken now by the Secretary of State on whether to intervene would not be based on the full facts raised by the application.

Consequently, on 10 December, the Government office wrote to Doncaster council and the applicant to notify them that the scheme would be put in abeyance while the transport assessment work was finalised. We will monitor developments with the Highways Agency.

Caroline Flint: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but my understanding is that, on the ground, the Highways Agency and the local authority are working closely on resolving the issues. I would welcome a meeting with
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the relevant official or Minister, if that is possible, because I still do not understand why, in principle, the matter cannot be resolved and the Government cannot decide whether to call in the application. I listened to the list of reasons that my hon. Friend gave for calling in, and I do not think that "none of the above" applies as a reason.

Mr. Malik: Let me say to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, that I am more than happy to meet for a discussion on the issue. My right hon. Friend has powerfully articulated her concerns, which are absolutely genuine, and I am sure that they are shared by her constituents and people in the sub-region, and in the region more widely. I am certainly happy to meet her so that we can speak with relevant officials. She also spoke about ensuring that the foot is on the accelerator. We would not want unnecessarily to slow down something that is so strategically important, not just to her constituency but, potentially, to the whole of the region and beyond.

The Government office is keeping in regular contact, and we will review the position in March at the latest, at which time the Highways Agency suggests that the assessment work will be completed and agreed. Once progress has been made on the highways issue, a submission will be sent to Ministers with a recommendation on whether the scheme is one in which the Secretary of State should intervene.

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