Tuesday, February 7, 2012

St Albans Intermodal Strategic Rail Freight Exchange Awaits Final Day of Reckoning

A Potted History of a Contentious Matter Which May be Drawing to a Close at Last
Shipping News Feature

UK – There is real hope for all concerned that the ongoing dispute over the future of the former Radlett aerodrome will be decided for once and for all by the 5th April this year. The plans to develop the site as an intermodal strategic rail freight exchange have been batted about between developers Helioslough Ltd., the local St Albans City & District Council, Planning Offices, Solicitors and various Government ministries since 2006. Now, as the matter which we have often reported on previously, seems to be heading for the end game we have tried to précis the story from its very beginnings.

The site is wholly within the Green Belt and is referred to as ‘Greenfield land’ a description applied to any previously undeveloped land or land which has reverted to its natural state. After an initial approach the request to grant planning permission was projected to be unsuccessful by the Council in November 2006 on thirteen separate grounds. One of these was that the transport assessment undertaken by Helioslough was deemed by the Highways Agency to be inadequate thus a decision was shelved.

In February 2007 planning was officially rejected, this time on fourteen counts unacceptable to the Council and the company was given six months to appeal which it duly did. By July Council officials were becoming concerned with the potential costs required to fight the forthcoming appeal, these were initially estimated as around £1 million of rate payers’ money. In September the date of the enquiry was set to commence on the 6th November and so the battle continued.

The first inquiry ended on the 19th December and the Secretary of State duly dismissed it in October 2008 only for a revised set of plans for the three and a half million square metre site to be lodged the following month. In July 2009 these plans were again rejected at Council level and, once again, the developer given six months to lodge an appeal which was duly done. In October the Council decided to set aside all or part of four of the fourteen objections to concentrate on the principal points of its argument, all this time local resistance under the STRiFE (Stop The Rail Freight Exchange) banner was building.

Once again the inquiry was launched at the end of the year, beginning on the 24th November 2009 and finishing a week before Christmas. Once again the Secretary of State mulled over the evidence until July the following year, and once again the appeal was thrown out but the Council was bloodied by additional costs for continuing to put forward arguments it had already lost at the previous appeal stage. By August Helioslough had spoken to us to say they had decided to continue to seek development of the site and so launched a High Court challenge in June last year.

On the 1st July 2011 His Honour Judge Milwyn Jarman QC decided in favour of Helioslough quashing the Secretary of State’s decision a year earlier on the grounds that the Secretary of State did not properly explain his reasons for disagreeing with the Planning Inspector’s recommendation of March 2010. The other three grounds of challenge were rejected by the Judge who referred the whole matter back to the Secretary of State for reconsideration. He wrote in turn to all parties inviting further representation after both the Secretary of State and the Council had opted not to appeal the Judge’s decision.

That brings us to the present day and now the Secretary of State has written to all parties saying he is now in a position to determine the matter and that a decision will be forthcoming by the 5th April. The letter (viewable HERE) has attached all the representations received by the Secretary of State which will lead to, what most parties sincerely hope, will be a final outcome.

The matter of strategic rail freight exchanges is always, as we have pointed out before, an extremely emotive issue. Despite the perceived need to rationalise an increasing amount of intermodal traffic now that high cube containers are rapidly becoming the transport mode of choice for many companies concerned that their environmental credentials stack up there is an understandable reluctance on the part of local interest groups such as STRiFE to have the vast increase in road haulage traffic that such developments, somewhat ironically, engender.