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Inspectors criticise council for trying to stop rail freight depot


Andrew Forster
01 May 2020

Planning inspectors have criticised St Albans District Council for obstructing the delivery of a strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI) facility to serve London and the South East. 

The freight depot is proposed for the former Radlett Airfield site, a parcel of Green Belt land south of St Albans. It would be  connected to the Midland Main Line that passes the site to the east. 

The Government granted planning permission for the SRFI in 2014 but St Albans Council, which has always opposed the development, subsequently designated the land for the Park Street Garden Village in its new draft local plan (LTT 22 Jul 2016 & 15 Feb 2019). 

Planning inspectors examining the local plan held three days of hearings in January but cancelled further sessions because of “serious concerns” about the plan’s legal compliance and soundness (LTT 06 Mar). 

The SRFI’s promoter, Helioslough, told the inspectors that the freight depot was a “strategic matter” under the National Planning Policy Framework and that the council therefore had to either facilitate its development or work with neighbouring councils, under the duty to co-operate, to identify how the SRFI could be delivered elsewhere.

St Albans Council did neither of these things. It argued that, because it had allocated the land for housing, the “SRFI was not a strategic matter for the purposes of the plan”.

In a letter to St Albans, the inspectors, Louise Crosby and Elaine Worthington, say the council’s approach to the SRFI is “illogical”. The draft plan will probably have to be withdrawn because of its serious failings, they add.  

“In our view, the SRFI is a strategic matter for the purposes of the duty to cooperate, as are allocations for housing development to meet identified housing need,” say the inspectors. “Thus, the use of the land at the Radlett site, whether as a SRFI or a housing allocation, is a strategic matter that the council should have been engaging and cooperating with neighbouring authorities about.” 

Crosby and Worthington imply that the council’s position actually had the support of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. “Whilst the council referred to verbal conversations with senior members of staff at MHCLG who were aware of the approach to the SRFI in the plan, a lack of objections from MHCLG is not an indication that the duty to cooperate has been met.

“Overall, there is no evidence of effective joint working or cooperation on this important strategic cross-boundary matter regarding a nationally significance infrastructure scheme.” 

The inspectors note the difficulty finding suitable sites for SRFIs in the South East, with a proposed site at Slough failing to secure planning permission in the 2000s and another at Dartford being rejected in 2019 (LTT 24 May 19). 

“Indeed, it seems that the Radlett site in St Albans is the only realistic option and there is robust and compelling evidence to demonstrate that the SRFI needs to be located there,” they say, noting that Network Rail supports the Radlett SRFI. 

The inspectors remark: “The requirement for the SRFI, an important piece of national infrastructure, is long-established and specific to the Radlett site. Whilst the provision of housing is also an important requirement and a focus and priority recognised in the [National Planning Policy] Framework, it is not fixed in location in the same way as the SRFI. 

“In this instance there are compelling reasons to look to provide both, and we are not convinced that the two requirements should be regarded as competing. Bringing these matters together, we consider that the plan does not meet the development needs of the area and fails to make sufficient provision for infrastructure for transport, in conflict with the [NPPF].”

The inspectors will reach a final conclusion after the council has responded to their letter. 

“However, in light of our serious concerns regarding the duty to co-operate, we consider it a very strong likelihood that there will be no other option other than that the plan is withdrawn from examination or we write a final report recommending its non-adoption because of a failure to meet the duty to co-operate,” they conclude.

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