Letters, January 17, part two

SIR - One wonders what external pressures might have been brought to bear on Eric Pickles, Secretary of State, to cause his complete, and seemingly less than rational, U-turn concerning the proposed approval of the Colney Street / Park Street rail freight terminal.

His refusal of 2010 was challenged in the High Court by the would-be developers on four aspects, three of which were dismissed and one returned to the SoS for a more detailed explanation, which has resulted in a completely opposite decision on the whole application in his giving provisional approval. Surely he could not have been so completely wrong the first time – especially when his predecessor had also rejected it? This treacherous U-turn inevitably breeds widespread suspicion of more than just logical decision at play – be it big money threats, pressure from other government agencies having their own agendas, or whatever. If there is any truth at all in such suspicion then the decision to grant the development is a dishonest one and a sad blow to open grass-roots democracy and to the Conservative Government’s “localism” and Green Belt policies.

Those of us who attended and took active part in the two public inquiries, both of which were most courteously conducted, are appalled by the apparent lack of serious consideration given to the case against the terminal, as listed below.

ROADS - One of the greatest concerns of thousands of local residents is the flooding of our roads with lorry traffic (estimated at 3,000 per 24 hours when fully running) plus workforce and services traffic, and I spent 40 minutes at each Inquiry presenting the current and likely future traffic conditions on our roads in this area.

In both the Inspectors’ reports and Secretary’s latest decision this local experiential knowledge is just brushed aside and effectively ignored: “[The Secretary of State] does not consider that there would be any significant harm in relation to highways issues” (Para 25 of December 20 letter from the SoS). We all know that any hold-up on the A414 would send the terminal’s lorries flooding into the local residential areas, not only jamming them but breaking up the road surfaces and causing yet more potholes, the like of which was illustrated on pages 6 and 7 of the Herts Advertiser of January 10.

RAIL - After much research on the subject, Anne Main MP delivered a powerful exposé at the second inquiry of the weakness of the claim that the Midland railway could properly cope with rail freight traffic, which gives rise to the credible fear that such a development could turn into largely a Road-Road Terminus, further increasing road congestion and damage. Again, this was effectively ignored, the December letter stating “that sufficient paths to enable access to be gained would be made available … [for] the SRFI to be accessed from all the key destinations”, and that “there is no reason to doubt that the Midland main line will develop as a key part of the rail freight network” (Para 29), despite the current inadequacy of the track and tunnels and the fact that all traffic from the north would have to pass through to Cricklewood and turn round to return to the proposed site. This optimistic belief in a future rail development does not seem at all even-handed alongside the SoS’s dismissive view of St Albans council’s plans for future development, attributing “little weight to the emerging St Albans City and District Core Strategy” (Para 18), and similarly little weight to the Development Strategy for Central Bedford (Para 31).

n EMPLOYMENT - Unlike other possible sites (eg Colnbrook and Luton), there is very little unemployment in the St Albans/Radlett area, meaning that the workforce would have to travel in from other areas, mainly by car as the Colney Street site is not greatly served by public transport. This will not only further congest and damage the roads, it will add to general pollution against any ‘green’ policy this country may have. Yet the SoS “does not consider that it would be reasonable to refuse planning permission for the development on account of sustainability concerns relating to the likely pattern of travel to work by the workforce” (Para 24).

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n ALTERNATIVE SITES - At the second inquiry the barrister acting for STRiFE reduced the appellant’s alternative sites case to ashes, their ‘expert’ not knowing how to answer the probing questions presented to him. Yet the SoS’s December letter contains, “…the assessment of alternative locations for an SRFI conducted by the appellant has been sufficiently methodical and robust to indicate that there are no other sites in the north west area of search which would be likely to come forward in the foreseeable future which would cause less harm to the Green Belt” (Para 37).

This is despite STRiFE’s alternative sites comparison showing that the Colnbrook site (- where jobs are wanted and where the land is already polluted by sewerage and other industrial activity) is less than half the size and therefore less than half the incursion into green belt land of the Colney Street site, yet with a capacity of only two less trains per 24 hours. Small wonder that HelioSlough so strongly oppose the idea suggested a few months ago by Mr Pickles of holding a conjoined Inquiry with the Radlett and Colnbrook sites; they know which would win!

Dealing with the “benefits offered by the appeal scheme”, the Secretary of State (in agreement with the inquiry inspector) considers that improvements to some footpaths and bridleways, provision of a “country park”, “employment benefits” (?), and a bypass across the development site (Para 37) will all in some way begin to counterbalance the overbearing destructive influence of this massive development with its huge buildings, noise, air pollution, lighting and traffic generation. Of course, neither he nor the developers will have to live here and put up with this monstrosity for generations to come.

In performing his U-turn to support this development the SoS may well be taking what from his standpoint is an expedient course, and naturally the proposed developers are fighting to make their profits, but the local community is fighting to retain a decent residential area for our families and future generations rather than be sacrificed for someone else’s expedience and profit-making.

The timing of the SoS’s letter just before Christmas obviously was intended to drown it amongst the seasonal activity and thereby lessen people’s reaction; but in that he failed. All he achieved was to blight Christmas for thousands of people. From the beginning, the St Albans District Council has shown moral fibre in firmly opposing this huge scheme in favour of its being sited in a less damaging location, despite thinly veiled financial threats from the appellant at the public council meeting that refused the application the second time round; this contrasts markedly with the pathetic backing-off by the Herts County Council and Herts Highways Authority.

The strenuous public and private efforts of St Albans MP Anne Main must also be recognized, and if the local Conservative vote does not further haemorrhage to UKIP and other parties it will largely be through personal loyalty to Mrs Main. Perhaps she would do better standing as an Independent? And the brilliantly organized opposition mounted by the STRiFE team led by Cathy Bolshaw has been nothing at all short of heroic; and this opposition is continuing.

Currently a petition organized by the Liberal Democrat Party is underway calling on the SADC to do everything legally within its power to reverse the SoS’s provisional approval, although a brief letter to the council to that effect would be equally effective; and there is an on-line petition calling on the Herts County Council to decline to release the land for this development, which I would urge all residents of Hertfordshire to sign, on https://consult.hertsdirect.org/petitions and click on “Hertfordshire County Council must not sell or lease land to HelioSlough”.


Park Street, St Albans

(Editor’s comment: Letters for publication are usually restricted to around 400 words, but Mr LaRivière presented such an eloquent and well-structured analysis of the rail freight issue that it was decided to run it in full.)