Container ship seen from the site of the proposed deep water container port.
Because of the economic and territorial interests of the councils that persuaded the government to set it up, the M4 to Dorset Coast connectivity study ignores powerful generators of traffic that aren’t on the Dorset Coast but nevertheless feed into the study area. National Highways is investing heavily in junction improvements and miles of dual-carriageway bypasses at Arundel and Chichester along the M27/A27 South Coast highway from Hastings to Southampton.
This corridor, linked to the M3 and the airport and the port of Southampton constitutes what enterprise partnerships and councils regard as the Solent growth area. Central to this vision is a revival of plans for the Dibden Bay deep-water container port on Southampton Water, rejected after a planning inquiry in 2004.
The inquiry inspector found that the port would have had unacceptable impacts on the ecology of Southampton Water, designated under EU law as a special protection area (SPA) for birds. Associated British Ports could not demonstrate that there was an imperative need for a new container port at this location because it owned other potential sites.
The European nature directives, embodied in UK law in for example the Habitats Regulations, are unlikely to escape the attention of a government pledged to ‘light a bonfire of red tape’ and seize the ‘opportunities opened up by Brexit’. Greenpeace believes the Habitats Directive is in imminent danger: https://action.greenpeace.org.uk/protect-and-restore-nature-in-england
Liz Truss has committed her government to removing or revising all EU legislation by the end of 2023.
These tawdry dreams come together in a third: Southampton was identified as a ‘Freeport’ in the Government’s 2021 spring budget*. If the vision of ‘global Britain‘ever materialises in the form of even bigger container ships following an even deeper-dredged channel up a bird-free Southampton Water to a new ‘Solent Freeport’, the A36-A46 route will once again be seen as part of the wiring for global economic growth – 80tonne trailer trucks, giant regional distribution centres (RDCs) cascading world produce down to ever-larger supermarkets and low-skill automated factories.
You may be asked which route you prefer for ‘your’ bypass but neither your council nor your government is likely to ask if you share this grim vision of the future, bringing the sound and stink of container trucks into your environment, day and night.
Rail: Southampton is on the Cardiff – Portsmouth line; the main line from London to Weymouth (via Poole) and on the south coast line to Portsmouth and Brighton, shadowing the M27/A27 route to Brighton and Hastings.
The port has good infrastructure for rail-freight with a dedicated freightliner siding. Container train services are constrained by limited capacity in the tunnel under the city. A branch line into the Eastern Docks carries trainloads of cars for export. An extension should be possible to deliver cruise-ship passengers to the Queen Elizabeth Passenger Terminal; boat trains used to carry passengers from Waterloo direct to the quays serving ferries to the Channel Islands and France.
Any new container port on the west side of Southampton Water could be connected to national networks by upgrading the single-track ‘Waterside Line’ serving the Esso refinery at Fawley. The line was closed for passenger services in 1966.
Network Rail has launched a consultation on reopening part of the line for passenger services. Trains would run from Southampton to Marchwood and Hythe. NR has been given £7m to develop a plan, including reopening Marchwood station and building a new one at Hythe. www.networkrail.co.uk/watersideline .
NR’s present plans do not provide for railfreight. This looks short-sighted in view of the way the line branches off to the extensive sidings of the Marchwood military port which is expected to be within the Solent Freeport customs area, along with Southamton docks and container port on the other side of the river. They would be operated by Dubai-based DP World, owner of P&O Ferries.
At present there are no plans to extend passenger services southwards to serve large commuter settlements at Hardley, Holbury and Langley. A further short extension could connect to the ‘Fawley Waterside’ development proposed for the old power-station site between the refinery, and Calshot at the mouth of Southampton Water. Network Rail says that if the service to Hythe is popular ‘further extension of the railway could be considered in future.’
Network Rail’s progressive, if less than visionary, scheme may be contrasted with Hampshire County Council’s more traditional remedy of spending many millions on increasing the capacity of junctions on the A326 from Fawley to the M27, regularly congested to a standstill in the AM and PM commuter peaks.
Ferries: There are fast ferry services from Southampton’s Town Pier to the Isle of Wight and slow ferries to Hythe. Could they also serve the Fawley Waterside development and so take some of its commuter traffic off the A326 while bringing tourists to historic Calshot, its beaches and activities centre on the edge of the New Forest? That would require joined-up thinking and investment in a sustainable future.
Junction 2 of the M27 also connects to the A36. The DoT’s expressway to the M4 would have taken a new alignment from here, looping north of West Wellow and on towards Salisbury and the M4.
* Note: At the same time as it accepted Southampton’s freeport proposal the government rejected the £50,000 bid from Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) council.