Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mixed Reaction as Intermodal Rail Freight Scheme Permission Sneaks in before Christmas

Government U Turn on Green Belt Development at St Albans
Shipping News Feature

UK – Many local residents are both disgusted and disappointed at the decision of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles who performed a spectacular U turn to grant permission for an intermodal rail freight terminal to be developed on the former airfield at Radlett, Hertfordshire. The move came despite Mr Pickles refusal to compromise the areas Green Belt in 2010 by going against the local planning authorities initial approval following a second public enquiry. In what local protestors say was a classic ‘week to bury bad news’ announcement the decision was made public in the run up to Christmas when legal advice was unavailable to the STRiFE (Stop the Rail Freight Exchange) group which has campaigned vigorously against the scheme.

The proposals for rail freight interchanges are always controversial but this one may end up being the most memorable of all. Local residents long ago formed the opposition group and they have the full support of local St Albans MP Anne Main who claims she was so upset she cried at the latest news and has explained her view in detail on her website. Despite Ms Main’s Conservative affiliation she called the decision ‘the worst possible Christmas present concluding:

“I am devastated on behalf of constituents who fought long and hard against this mindless act of vandalism. When the Minister discussed this with me I made it clear how angry I was and I find the decision incomprehensible. I cannot see what has changed since the previous refusals and I shall continue to explore the reasoning behind this change of direction."

The decision to sacrifice an amount of Green Belt, hitherto held as sacrosanct, is bound to cause an extended wave of protest which is likely to receive an amount of support from the Conservatives’ coalition Liberal Democrat partners. Mr Pickles has made it clear that developers Helioslough, actually a public front for the Segro industrial property group, will need to make suitable recompense which means the company has two months to convince the relevant authorities that it will produce enough cash to adequately compensate the local community and pay for suitable replacement facilities.

There has broadly been support for the scheme from representatives of the freight transport industry, most of who are simply relieved that a viable intermodal exchange may at last be permitted in an area of the country many analysts feel is in need of one. The Rail Freight Group (RFG) commented that this would be the only major rail freight interchange in the North and West quadrants around London and St Albans was well situated because of its good road and rail links. The RFG believe opening Radlett will persuade more companies to use rail for a greater proportion of their freight miles, a government transport objective, with Maggie Simpson, RFG Executive Director, saying:

"This is great news for the rail freight sector, and for those businesses, particularly in the retail sector, who want to increase the use of rail in their supply chains. Radlett has been in the planning system for over a decade, and we are delighted that it has finally reached a positive conclusion. We congratulate the developers on their perseverance."

Subsequent to its own ‘On Track’ report which highlighted the need for more freight terminals with faster rail connections and more frequent services the Freight Transport Association (FTA) expressed approval for the scheme with Chris MacRae, FTA's Rail Freight Policy Manager, commenting:

“Rail freight terminals are the freight network’s equivalent of passenger stations: so this decision is a good Christmas present for the freight industry and helps modal shift and the environment."

The decision presumably sounds the death knell for the proposed development at Upper Sundon in the adjacent county which received tacit approval from Central Bedfordshire Council in November when it included the rival scheme in its own development plans.

Those interested in some of the history of the scheme can use the News Search facility as usual using a suitable keyword.

Photo: A shot of Radlett aerodrome in its former glory years.