Greenbelt or green shoots?

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The government has finally backed proposals for a strategic rail freight interchange at Radlett in a spectacular U-turn. What does this mean for UK SRFI policy now?

National rail freight forecasts produced by MDS Transmodal for the Rail Freight Group and the Rail Freight Operators Association in 2011 suggest that intermodal rail freight can grow from 16 million tonnes in 2010 to 86m tonnes in 2030.

However, this forecast is predicated on some 5 million sq ft of new rail-connected warehousing capacity at Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges (SRFIs) being available in Great Britain by 2030.

The DfT’s policy document on SRFIs (November 2011) states there is a lack of such distribution capacity serving London and the South. Many in the industry believe that there is only one solution – to build on the greenbelt.

It has been noted that there are ten million people in the East and West Midlands served by three strategic rail freight interchanges, and six non-port intermodal terminals.

However in London and the South East where there are 21 million people, there are no SRFIs and just three non-port intermodal terminals.

So the secretary of state’s decision to approve the development of Helioslough’s 3.5 million sq ft SRFI at Radlett near St Albans in Hertfordshire subject to a 106 agreement is seen as something of a miracle. The logistics industry must hope that the government can stand firm in the face of threats of a judicial review and a sustained public outcry from the local community.

The decision to allow development on the greenbelt has been likened to the selling off of the family silver and you’d expect the destruction of vast tracts of rolling English countryside. However the proposals show that the development would incorporate five large distribution/warehouse buildings, parking for up to 1,600 cars and more than 610 lorries as well as substantial landscaping and other works to provide public access to open land and a community forest as well as the associated rail infrastructure on a site of 1,000 acres.

Philippa Edmunds, of Freight on Rail says: “This judgement, by Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, is the first major test of the SRFI policy and therefore sets an important precedent, especially in the context of the South East and London, where it has previously been difficult to secure planning permission for large intermodal interchanges.

“As the policy states, a network of freight interchanges are needed near the business markets, to link key supply chain routes, with good rail and road connections to facilitate trade links between UK regions and the European Union.”

Richard Griffiths, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons specialising in planning, says: “It certainly looks that the recent decision to approve the Radlett rail freight terminal despite local opposition may well be a sign that the government’s localism agenda has finally given way to centralist measures aimed at boosting the UK economy.”

It was in November 2011 that the secretary of state reiterated the government’s continued support for the SRFI concept arguing that the forecast growth in freight demand would lead to increasing road congestion.

“We need to secure substantial modal shift to rail which, in turn, will require sustained investment in the capability both of the national rail network and in the terminals and interchange facilities which serve it,” it said.

True benefit

Simon Lloyd of DTZ states: “In a property context rail was seen as a thing to get planning now. It is a true benefit because the usage rate has gone up and services are now much more flexible and efficient.”

Tim Davies of Colliers says: “Given the state of the economy we have to improve our supply chain, we must trade and to do that we must improve our logistics infrastructure. [This announcement] is a line in the sand. Isn’t it time we had the opportunity to do it?”

According to Jon Sleeman of Jones Lang LaSalle there are proposals for several SRFIs totalling more than 20 million sq ft that could be brought forward that much faster if the government holds firm.

Prologis’ Robin Woodbridge says the present function and nature of the market makes it difficult to deliver SRFIs. In 2008 Prologis secured planning for RFI Howbury near Dartford in Kent, totalling 2.1 million sq ft, however funding became difficult due to the economic circumstances.

Prologis is currently working on two rail linked schemes DIRFTIII, which will be an 8 million sq ft expansion of the successful Daventry Rail Freight Terminal in the East Midlands, and a 1.8 million sq ft scheme at Sundon near Luton in Bedfordshire.

Gazeley has a 4m sq ft rail freight interchange scheme it is promoting known as Magna Park Peterborough which will be linked via the Felixstowe-Nuneaton rail line, a designated freight route to the West Coast Main Line, giving access to the Midlands, the North and Scotland. Gazeley launched proposals for its Peterborough scheme in 2008, and although now in the council’s core strategy, there have been no further moves on site.

Goodman is trying to push through its SIFE scheme near Slough totalling 2 million sq ft while Roxhill is ploughing on with its East Midlands Gateway plans which would see a major SRFI just off the M1 motorway totalling more than 6 million sq ft.

Owing to its size, the development is expected to qualify under the government’s new planning rules as a “multi-modal scheme of strategic national importance” and thereby eligible to be brought before the secretary of state.

The scheme has already been allocated for an SRFI in the draft North West Leicestershire Core Strategy. It is located by junction 24 of the M1 motorway near East Midlands Airport.

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