Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Continuing Saga of the St Albans Strategic Rail Freight Interchange Drags On

(and on, and on....... )
Shipping News Feature

UK – Following the decision by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles, stating that he was ‘minded to approve’ planning permission to allow developers Helioslough to build the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) at the site of the former Radlett Aerodrome on Park Street, St. Albans City & District Council has threatened Mr. Pickles with action in the High Court if he does not meet the Council’s request that the Secretary of State reconsider his decision not to re-open the Radlett inquiry and conjoin it with an inquiry into an alternative site at Colnbrook, Slough.

In September 2012, Mr Pickles considered combining the inquiries saying that ‘it is likely to lead to a more coherent and consistent decision-making process overall.’ He invited interested parties to comment on the plan to re-open and combine the inquiries but then in December, the Secretary of State decided against this process as he concluded that ‘it was unnecessary and that he was satisfied that he could determine the Radlett proposal on the basis of the evidence before him.’ Showing strong opposition to the SRFI at Radlett, Local Liberal parliamentary candidate Sandy Walkington, in a blog post, said:

“It seems to me that there are clear grounds for St. Albans Council to take legal action to stop Mr Pickles and Helioslough in their tracks. It was Eric Pickles himself who chose to link Helioslough’s application for Park Street with the separate application to build a similar rail-linked strategic freight terminal at Colnbrook near Slough. It was he who proposed re-opening the Inquiry into Park Street and conjoining it with that into Colnbrook so their relative merits could be assessed side-by-side.

“He then turned on a sixpence, reversed this previous position with no explanation, and proceeded to jump to a conclusion about Park Street before the Public Inquiry into Colnbrook has even taken place. I am encouraged by the noises being made by St. Albans Council that legal action is under consideration. But we need to reinforce their determination by showing that taking legal action would have widespread support from local council tax payers.”

This apparently widespread support comes in the form of two petitions set up by campaigners against the Radlett proposal. The first petition, created by the Stop the Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE) group is targeted at the Hertfordshire County Council asking them to ‘maintain its current position and refuse to sell or lease the land for this development.’

The second petition, which has been set up by Walkington and his team, is aimed at the St. Albans District Council and asks them to do anything and everything legally in its power to overturn Eric Pickles’ decision including taking the proposed action in the High Court.

In a further development regarding the proposal, St Albans City & District Council has announced that it has received notification of an extension to the Secretary of State’s decision making timescales. Mr Pickles is seeking a Section 106 planning obligation - an obligation to fund various infrastructure requirements - from Helioslough.

The Secretary of State originally proposed to allow until 28 February 2013 for the planning obligation to be submitted, before proceeding to a final decision. However, in a letter dated last week, the Secretary of State has agreed to a request from Helioslough to extend the period to 28 March 2013. This is to allow Hertfordshire County Council’s Cabinet to consider the matter at its meeting on 25 February.

In an effort to find some answers, St. Albans MP Anne Main secured a Westminster Hall debate to raise questions on the decision which focused on the importance of the 300 acres of green belt land at the Radlett site. During the debate, she criticised the coalition Government of using the ‘flat-lining economy as a justification to take a less-than robust view on green belt protection.’ Both she and Hertsmere MP James Clappison also questioned Mr Pickles’ decision and specifically asked the Secretary of State for an explanation as to why he made a u-turn. Clappison said:

“The ministerial decision-making has been flawed, unreasonable and perverse and it doesn’t stand examination. Questions are not being answered and the onus falls on the minister now to explain how this, so clearly flawed, decision-making has come about and demonstrate this Government really does care for the green belt.”

In an attempt to answer the questions posed, Planning Minister Nick Boles said that the decision comes from existing policy that is unchanged and is set out very clearly in the National Planning Policy Framework. He added that while many new buildings are appropriate, they should not be granted planning permission unless in very special circumstances, what these ‘special circumstances’ are he couldn’t expand upon due to the possible High Court action. Boles continued:

“Sometimes local planning committees have to take difficult decisions between two competing demands in their own local plan and have to be able to explain to local people why they have gone down one side and not the other side.”

In St Albans Mr Boles comments were met with derision as he was accused of hiding behind the potential legal action to avoid properly answering the question. Local interests once again accused Mr Pickles of abruptly reversing his previous position when following his strangling of the Helioslough scheme in 2010-11 it was the High Court which allowed the case to be looked at again.

One company who will be viewing the final outcome with interest will be DB Schenker Rail (UK) who agreed terms with the developers of both the Radlett scheme and the other likely venue Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire. The deals were signed and sealed literally years ago to develop the intermodal facilities when either site received the official go ahead.

For a potted history of this scheme or to discover more about some of the key players such as Helioslough simply type a key word such as Radlett or St Albans into the News Search Box at the head of this page.

Photo: Probably taken about the time this controversy started…………..