When The Ticking Has to Stop: The Radlett SRFI

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What happens when the parcel stops ticking?

As our legislators’ thoughts turned towards tinsel, we saw again the traditional parliamentary game known as “When the music (parliamentary questions) stop – let’s stop passing the ticking parcel of hot potatoes.” As every spin-doctor knows, this is either best done the day before the House breaks up, or better still the day after. A blizzard of written, and therefore unquestioned, ministerial statements flutter down from Whitehall. Answers to long stalled awkward questions are dropped into Honourable Members’ in-trays in the hope that by the end of the recess response, to the no longer burning-hot potato, will be merely bubble and squeak.

On the 20th December 2012, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles announced that he was minded to approve the planning application of Helioslough to build a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SFRI) on the site of the old Radlett aerodrome at Park Street near St Albans.

An artist's impression of the site

An artist’s impression of the site

Dependent on where you stand, this decision demonstrates either the Government’s commitment to expanding the green economy or Government condoned vandalism of the green belt. Philippa Edmunds, speaking on behalf of the Freight on Rail Group said:

This Radlett judgement, by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is the first major test of the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange 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. This decision not only secures up to 3000 direct and indirect jobs but also means that long distance freight can be removed from our congested road network as part of an integrated multimodal solution, which is what customers want.

Meanwhile the Herts Advertiser reported the dismay of the scheme’s opponents:

Among the many condemning the Minister’s decision was St Albans district Councillor Robert Donald, Lib Dems leader, who said he was “totally dismayed”. He added, “I am very angry that this decision was announced just before Christmas since it is treating the public with utter contempt. Deliberately trying to bury bad news over the coming holiday period to avoid adverse publicity and wider media attention is both cynical and insulting.

Campaign group Stop The Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE) described it as “devastating news” for the district and southwest Herts. A spokeswoman said that legal advice would be sought about further options available to fight this “monstrous proposal”. Cllr. Teresa Heritage, the council’s portfolio holder for planning, said she was disappointed as the interchange would harm the Green Belt and was contrary to St Albans’ Development Plan. The council is also taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State’s ruling. MP for St Albans Anne Main said she was “devastated on behalf of constituents who fought long and hard against this mindless act of vandalism.” She went on: “When the Minister discussed this with me I made it clear how angry I was and I find the decision incomprehensible.” Lib Dem prospective candidate for St Albans, Sandy Walkington, added: “This is a terrible Christmas present for local residents. The timing is disgraceful.”

Defending his position, the Secretary of State recognised the controversial nature of his decision. He admitted that the appeal proposal would be an inappropriate development in the Green Belt and cause further harm through loss of openness and significant encroachment into the countryside. In addition, the scheme would contribute to urban sprawl and it would cause harm to the setting of St Albans. Nevertheless, he maintained that when the harm to the Green Belt was compared to the need for a SRFI to serve London and the south east, the latter outweighed the impact on the area. Mr Pickles said he would allow the scheme because of “special circumstances” and “the lack of more appropriate alternative sites for such a terminal”.

The Goldilocks’ problem

Long standing readers will remember our 2008/9 coverage of the genesis of this project that has aroused fierce passions and prolonged argument. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) of future Freight capacity requirements first broached this project in concept form in a 2001 report:

It is estimated that a further three to four strategic rail freight sites around the M25 could be required if rail freight is to help London minimize its environmental footprint. Additional smaller sites for rail terminals in London, particularly those needed to supply construction materials, are needed, but problems continue to be experienced in gaining planning permission. It is important that an appropriate balance is struck between local and strategic issues in such cases…

Thus, proposals for sites in Kent and Heathrow emerged together with one next to the Midland Main Line just north of where it crosses the M25 between Radlett and St Albans. As ever the devil was in the detail – especially the need for large sites adjacent to trunk rail routes and motorways – in particular, the M25, which runs for most part through the politically and emotionally charged Green Belt. London’s Green Belt was established in 1935 “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. It now has an iconic status, particularly in the areas that border or encompass its external perimeter. These “beyond the beltway” towns and cities have become “Goldilocks” locations – close enough for timely commuting into the City but far enough away to leave city problems behind. Their significant prosperous, educated and articulate resident base enjoys a buoyant housing market and relatively low levels of local unemployment. It came as no surprise that a fierce debate broke out at each proposed SFRI location. Local residents reacted adversely to both the prospect of large number of trucks operating in their neighbourhoods and tracts of green belt covered by concrete. In 2006, the SRA, the organisational equivalent of Oliver Bulleid’s Leader Class, was scrapped by Alastair Darling. However, as an integral part of the container based logistics revolution, the SFRI concept lived on.

In the early days of London Reconnections, we began to take an interest in the Park Street project with three pieces describing the “Strictly Come War Dancing” process (starting here) as the promoters and opponents danced like Lilliputian Ministers to persuade the Planning Inspectorate. This has now evolved into one of those American “Dance Marathons” that followed the Great Crash of 1929, whereby the last couple standing won the prize – a contest of determination, resource and most of all attrition.

I don’t feel like dancing when the old Joanna plays

Helioslough’s first planning application was considered by the St Albans City Council on 19 February 2007 and was promptly refused. The Council, in its original planning decision, considered that the rail freight proposal would cause harm to the Green Belt. It also felt that it would be contrary to the Local Development Plan. This led to an appeal. The Planning Inspectorate then held its first public inquiry that commenced on 6 November 2007 and finished on 19 December 2007. The Planning Inspector subsequently sent a report to the Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, who dismissed the appeal in October 2008. The ground for dismissal was that the evaluation of alternative sites was inadequate and the failure to demonstrate a “compelling” case for building in the Green Belt. To the objectors this was a momentous victory, whereas to Helioslough it was a technical defeat. To the dismay of the objectors, Helioslough regrouped and submitted a second planning application that addressed the issues. St Albans’ councillors, who found they had no choice but to consider this second application, faced a further round of beans from the local electorate and refused permission for a second time. Helioslough Ltd then appealed for the second time against this decision to refuse planning permission for the interchange on land at the former Radlett aerodrome. A second Public Inquiry was held in November and December 2009 and ended with the Inspector’s recommendation to accept the revised proposals. This culminated in a decision by the Secretary of State, dated 7 July 2010, to dismiss the appeal and again the Senatus Populusque Verulamii sighed with relief.

The fight, however, was not over yet. Helioslough then challenged the Secretary of State’s July 2010 decision in the High Court. On 1 July 2011, a High Court Judge found that the Secretary of State did not properly explain his reasons for disagreeing with the Planning Inspector’s recommendation that the proposed development be allowed. The High Court referred the matter back to the Secretary of State to re-determine. The Secretary of State invited all parties to the planning appeal, including the Council, to make further written representations. The Council made its further representations on 14 October 2011. In a letter dated 29 March 2012, the Secretary of State informed all parties to the appeal that he had decided to delay his decision. He invited further written representations on the relevance of the recently published National Planning Policy Framework. The Council provided its representations on 16 April 2012.

The Secretary of State wrote to the Council in a letter dated 19 September 2012 to seek views on a proposal to re-open the Radlett inquiry. He proposed conjoining it with an inquiry into an SFRI site at Colnbrook near Slough. Interested parties were asked to give their views by 3 October 2012.

In a letter dated 14 December 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government said that he has decided not to re-open the inquiry. Then a week later, the ticking stopped followed the sound of loud blasts and of the occasional damn.

It’s not the goal posts moving – it’s the pitch

Any decision to build a major infrastructure investment rests on assumptions. Again long standing readers will remember our espousal of the views of Bent Flyvberg in his book “Megaprojects and Risk” about the precarious nature of such assumptions. In part, this derives from a combination of imperfect understanding of market drivers and the triumph of self-serving hope over experience. Professor Flyvberg described an unhealthy cocktail of underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects. However, another key element is that, because megaprojects have a lengthy gestation, the goal posts that mark “success” tend to move. In the planning trade, this is known as MCC – “material changes of circumstances”. The SFRI at Radlett Aerodrome has not been immune to MCC.

Eric Pickles’ musing as to whether to conjoin the Radlett/Park Street and Colnbrook/Heathrow public enquiries was just the latest in a number of MCC’s that have occurred during the project approval process. As our chum, Lemmo pointed out, in his series of pieces on London’s rail freight scene, the capacity and future role of the Midland Main Line was about to change.

When the SRFI was first mooted, Network Rail’s perspective was conditioned by the 2007 Freight RUS. It was also reflective of the attitude of the Treasury, who together with their Marsham Street Minions (Steady Greg steady), appeared to have an antipathy towards further widespread rail electrification schemes. Following the completion of the East Coast Main Line in 1991, electrification stalled. Between 1997 and 2010 only an additional nine miles of existing track were electrified. The Midland Main Line (MML), having been electrified to Bedford in 1983, went on to the back burner. This followed a decision to replace existing HST stock with Bombardier class 222 diesel multiple units in 2004. The entrenched policy was abandoned in 2010.The Labour Government, shortly before losing office, set out proposals to electrify both significant parts of the rail network in the North West and on the main line between London and South Wales.

Following the 2010 General Election, the incoming Coalition Government reappraised these projects and announced that it would proceed with the electrification of the Great Western Main Line. It also announced proposals for the electrification of other commuter lines in South Wales. There had been a considerable kick back from the cadre of those MP’s though whose constituencies the Midland Main Line ran at being missed when the Great Western route was given priority and a constant campaign of ministerial questions and adjournment debates kept the pot stirred. When the government decided that a surge in “shovel ready” investment was necessary to counter the recession, the MPs, including a number of newly minted Conservatives, armed with previous cost-benefit analyses piled in.

Their efforts bore fruit when the Midland Main Line finally received approval in July 2012 as part of a new north south ‘Electric Spine’ involving:

  • Midland Main Line electrification
  • Basingstoke to Reading electrification.
  • Bournemouth to Basingstoke conversion from DC to AC electrification
  • Oxford – Nuneaton via Leamington – Coventry electrification
  • Midland Main Line Enhancement Bedford – Corby
  • Midland Main Line Leicester capacity improvements
  • Midland Main Line – Derby journey time and capacity improvements
  • Oxford – Bedford electrification

Network Rail’s business plans now include a £514.61m commitment for the electrification of the Midland Mainline that links London to Sheffield. Line speed improvements at various locations along the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras International and Sheffield will raise the speed for passenger services from 110mph to a maximum permissible speed of 125mph. Martin Frobisher, route-managing director at Network Rail, said, “Our route plan sets out the investments we are making for the future, particularly our focus on new technology and electrification and creating more capacity.”

In addition to passenger services, the Department of Transport had also brought forward a raft of other proposals affecting the MML. In November 2011, the Secretary of State reiterated continued support for the SFRI concept:

“The Government does not consider that the United Kingdom’s current predominantly road-based system of logistics represents an economically or environmentally sustainable model for the future. Even in the event of a significant future road building programme – which in itself would have major environmental implications – the forecast growth in freight demand would lead to increasing congestion both on the road network and at our ports, together with a continued increase in transport carbon emissions.

To avoid these unacceptable outcomes 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.

This was reinforced in the subsequent HLOS:

The creation of an electrified route linking the core centres of population and economic activity in the Midlands and North with the major container port of Southampton is a crucial step in creating the right conditions for significant private sector investment in electric freight locomotives, which offer more efficient, capable and sustainable freight haulage. The rolling programme of electrification is expected to help make rail freight commercially more attractive across England, supporting our growing international trade and the transfer of container traffic from road.

The work should include gauge clearance for large containers and appropriate electrified links to adjacent electrified routes, depots and freight facilities. Opportunities should be pursued to speed journeys through efficient enhancements in conjunction with the improvements, notably between Bedford and Corby, and at Derby. The Secretary of State wishes to see sufficient capacity to provide for forecast freight flows crossing the Electric Spine at Leicester. The industry is to undertake further development work to confirm the full scope and requirements for the delivery of this scheme, which the Secretary of State believes is deliverable within the SoFA.

Courtesy Andrew HA

Courtesy Andrew HA

Courtesy Andrew HA

Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Andrew HA for this picture of a class 66 hauled freight trains at Harpenden and Bedford

Hitherto, Network Rail’s attitude to the SFRI had been conditioned by the real constraints on train paths north of Bedford and no real prospect of changing the situation. By not being included as part of the Strategic Freight Network, the principle southern sector MML freight flows are aggregate, fuel and bin-liner trains to small dedicated terminals. Following the July 2012 announcement, Network Rail has been obliged to step up to planning for a busier railway. One immediate consequence of electrification would be the introduction of 125 mph electric multiple units. These would import similar disparities in line speed between freight and passenger trains to those found on the West Coast Main Line. Causal rather than symptomatic changes are therefore required.

Evidence of such changes appears in Network Rail’s input into the Statement of Agreed Facts (SOAF) prepared jointly with the other participants in the second public inquiry. SOAF’s are an essential tool in de-cluttering the public enquiry process. They enable the Inspector to focus upon the contested issues – where Ministerial arbitration may be required. Our thanks are due to our chum Mackenzie for a piece of diligent information excavation amongst a briefing on the SOAF produced by St Albans’ planners for the City Council:

Gauge pending enhancement

7.126 In order for an SRFI to operate as such it must be capable of being accessed by wagons carrying containers from around the UK and from the deep – sea ports and the Channel Tunnel.

7.127 Radlett is capable of being so accessed now (and, with the gauge enhancement works envisaged in the s.106, will in the future become even more easily accessible to the larger containers on standard wagons). On the last occasion the SoS accepted occupation of no less than 175,000m2 before any gauge enhancement works were necessary.

On the current gauge, intermodal trains can access the site without any enhancement works. DBS has no concerns about operating the intermodal facility on the current gauge pending gauge enhancement works and regularly runs services on the lower loading wagons that would be used here pending gauge enhancement.

7.128 There is no reason to suppose that, pending gauge enhancements, services will be uneconomic and will require subsidy and it was telling that there was no cross examination of Mr Smith on this issue which lies at the heart of the Council’s case.

There is no reason why profitable, unsubsidised services cannot be operated from this site prior to the gauge enhancement works.

7.129 At the last inquiry, based on Laser Rail work, it was assumed that the MML was W7 gauge. Mr Thorne did not claim that on that W7 basis the current gauge caused substantial difficulties. HS was positively criticised by the Council for using gauge constraints to reject alternative sites. We now know that the MML is in fact W8 to Cricklewood (9/HS/3.2 – Network Rail Route Plan Midland & Continental). The current position is materially better than that assumed at the last inquiry.

7.130 In respect of the cross London routes, para 2.6 of the Statement of Agreed Facts with Network Rail (9/CD/7.4) (“NR SOAF”) is clear and no questions have been raised on it.

On the route to Acton Wells Junction, whilst further detailed gauging work is required, “preliminary gauging assessment indicates that scope may exist to carry [9 foot 6 inch] containers carried on FAA wagons (if correct, this is a further material improvement on the position assumed at the last Inquiry). This would provide for FAA (not the low loaders) to carry the largest containers to the Channel Tunnel and Southampton

– wagons, which DBS currently use, on a significant number of routes.

In respect of Felixstowe, the low loaders (KTA) could gain direct access through Carlton Road junction.

7.131 It can thus be seen that even now and even on current assessment, the gauge allows for access to all routes. Para 2.8 of NR SOAF is important:
“Subject to further gauging analysis by Network Rail, it is possible that other combinations of inter-modal wagons and containers can operate on the MML in line with relevant Railway Group standards.”

7.132 DBS has run trains on routes, which are identified as too low a gauge but which in fact, can accommodate their trains. Mr Smith explained the process used by NR. NR is in the process of looking more closely at what a line can practically take rather than what gauge it is theoretically identified as accommodating.

7.133 Detailed work on current gauge will of course be undertaken as part of the process of working up rail access proposals for the SRFI (prior to gauge enhancement). Even if it demonstrates no enhanced accessibility, the position is plain – freight trains can access the SRFI from all the key destinations.

Engineering Work

7.134 The engineering requirements for gauge enhancement have been grappled with by the Inspector at IR16.66 – 67 and nobody claims any MCC in this regard.
“[NR] does not consider there to be any major technical obstacles to achieving [W10] enhancement works (NR SOAF para 2.19)”.

7.135 As Mr Gallop pointed out the works to deliver Thameslink create a significant window of opportunity for these engineering works to be carried out in existing possessions: see also NR SOAF para 2.20. In any event, NR has a good record of planning such possessions: see Mr Hirst Appendix A1.2 letter from EMT. It is to be noted that, of course, these works will be inevitable anyway if the MML is to fulfil its new role as part of the Strategic Freight Network (“SFN”).

MML as a core freight route

7.136 At the last inquiry much was made of the MML not being a core freight route. In that regard, of course, there is a significant MCC in favour of the proposals with the MML being identified as a part of the SFN. This is backed up by RUS and proposed electrification. There is also the opportunity to clear the MML to continental standards (UIC) – NG para 4.17 p11.

Miscellaneous Points

7.137 The south – facing only connection was considered at the last inquiry by the Inspector [IR16.67 – 16.68] and was not criticised. The SRA policy (para 4.32) relied on by the Council to show that the lack of two way access is a material disbenefit was current at the last inquiry. The SRA policy in any event makes clear the latitude to consider other arrangements: see para 4.33. SIFE has an eastward facing connection only.

[Note: That is Colnbrook, facing towards Paddington]

7.138 The future potential for the northward connection is a significant benefit: NR SOAF para 2.18 although it is accepted that that has not been subject to environmental assessment.

Before the Ministerial announcement, Network Rail’s role was to provide a technical solution for the SFRI as a stand-alone project. Now the emphasis has shifted to being an integral element of the wider scheme. Economies of scale become possible. Small projects often take up time and resource out of proportion to their scale relative to larger ones. Uncertainty, that key driver of, the bogeyman of construction costs, the provision for contingencies has reduced because of intervening events. For example, the intervening growth in intermodal traffic has justified the closer examination of the gauging needs of freight operation with refinement of initial calculations. The development of electric freight engines with” last mile” off the wire capability will make accessing the depot easier. Perhaps most important the facility will be better orientated to what could well be the site’s predominant traffic flows.

Exactly what these flows could be still depends on the interrelationship between Radlett and the other putative SFRIs. The Minister of State may have hoped that his festive season decision was going to be the end of the matter but, in the cold light of the New Year, he will be obliged to explain his workings. The response of St Albans City Council, reported in the Herts Advertiser on the 25th January 2013, has been to instruct their learned friends:

The decision to give the green light to a massive rail freight depot in Park Street is “flawed” and recent decisions could be the subject of a Judicial Review in the High Court.
St Albans district council has given the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles seven days to respond to their request that he should reconsider his decision of December 14 not to go ahead with a conjoined inquiry into rail freight schemes for the former Radlett Airfield and Colnbrook in Slough.

Less than a week later, Mr Pickles announced that he was “minded” to give planning permission to Helioslough to develop a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) on the Park Street site subject to legal technicalities. As an interim decision that cannot be challenged at this stage.

If Mr Pickles does not respond over the issue of the conjoined inquiry within seven days, the council has served notice that it will challenge the decision at a Judicial Review.

The council’s argument is that the Secretary of State’s view that he sees, “little reason to conclude that Colnbrook would meet the needs for an SRFI in a less harmful way” than that at Radlett Airfield, is contrary to his earlier positions in 2010 and 2012.

It believes that the decision fails to take into account the lack of any proper and adequate comparative assessment of the relative merits of the two sites and that Mr Pickles’ assessment of the position regarding Colnbrook is entirely inconsistent with his reasoning in his decision of July 2010 to refuse Helioslough planning permission for the Park Street SRFI.

The council also contends that the change of position stands “wholly unexplained” and was reached on “an irrational basis or by taking into account immaterial considerations.”

The council’s decision follows the receipt of legal advice, which reflects that received by campaign group STRiFE from their legal experts that the decision not to go to a conjoined inquiry could be challenged.

St Albans MP, Anne Main, who has managed to get a Westminster debate next Tuesday, January 29, entitled Protection of the Green Belt and Radlett Aerodrome site, has also backed the council’s decision.

She said: “I completely agree with the council’s decision; there was no explanation of the about turn in the Secretary of State’s position given his strong support for conjoined inquiries mere months before.

“I, along with the council, wrote to the Secretary of State to support conjoined inquiries as we believe that seen side by side it strengthens our argument.

“The Secretary of State said that conjoining the inquiries would, ‘lead to a more coherent and consistent decision-making process overall’ and I agree.”

She added: “I do not understand why he did not follow through with conjoining the inquiries and we have been given no reason why he did not. What changed? I am suspicious that it had more to do with national economic strategy than planning policy.”

Mrs Main pledged that the fight would continue “until the very end” with every avenue explored both inside and outside of Parliament to expose the decision-making process.

Mr Pickles has agreed to Helioslough’s request for a one-month extension to its “planning obligation” deadline. He originally proposed to allow until February 28 for the Section 106 planning obligation to be submitted, but this has been extended until March 28. This is to allow HCC’s cabinet to consider the matter at its meeting on February 25.

We will pick up this story again and move on to examine the progress or lack of it of other candidate sites. In the meantime fortified by suitable snacks, we will be watching the Westminster Hall debate web stream with great interest. Potato salad, anybody?

Written by Mwmbwls