‘We surrender!’ St Albans council concedes fight against Park Street rail freight depot in exchange for Local Plan

Flashback: Herts Ad editor Matt Adams, Anne Main MP and Cllr Sandy Walkington with rail freight camp

Flashback: Herts Ad editor Matt Adams, Anne Main MP and Cllr Sandy Walkington with rail freight campaigners outside County Hall - Credit: Archant

The fight to prevent a massive rail freight depot on the outskirts of St Albans is over after the district council threw in the towel.

The proposed site of the Radlett rail freight depot

The proposed site of the Radlett rail freight depot - Credit: Archant

For years councillors of different political parties have battled to prevent a strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI) at the former Radlett Aerodrome in Park Street, land owned by Herts county council.

Developers HelioSlough applied for outline permission for the scheme in the early 2000s, only to meet massive opposition from residents, district and county councils, and then MP Anne Main,

HelioSlough’s applications were rejected by St Albans district council (SADC) before planning permission was granted in 2014 by former communities secretary Eric Pickles.

SADC appealed this decision at the High Court and lost, but then included the same site for housing in the Local Plan, the blueprint for development in the district for the years to 2036.

Computer-generated image of the proposed rail freight terminal in Park Street

Computer-generated image of the proposed rail freight terminal in Park Street - Credit: Archant

Now it is prepared to sacrifice the battle against the rail freight depot in a bid to move forwards with this selfsame plan.

The progress of the Local Plan was halted when government inspectors raised a number of issues.

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One of the inspectors’ main concerns was that SADC might not have fulfilled a “duty to cooperate” with other local authorities, and not explored the possibility that adjacent councils might be able to meet some of its housing need.

SADC has now responded by letter to the inspectors to allay their concerns and request that the Local Plan examination continues.

It argues that the duty to cooperate had been fulfilled in that there had been no capacity for any other council to help them meet their housing target.

This view has been supported by Dacorum Borough, Hertsmere, Watford, Three Rivers and Welwyn Hatfield district councils as well as Hertfordshire County Council.

A number of major house builders and landowners have also voiced support for the council’s position.

In its reply, SADC said if the inspectors resume the Local Plan examination, they will throw out plans for a garden village of 2,000 homes on the rail freight site.

It is now prepared to accept that a depot - which is viewed as infrastructure of national importance - should be constructed there instead.

HelioSlough has written to the inspectors supporting the council’s approach and asking for the examination to continue.

Cllr Jamie Day, portfolio holder for planning, said: “We believe that our robust response answers the inspectors concerns on this crucial issue of our duty to cooperate.

“We are supported in that view by every one of our neighbouring councils as well as the county council and I thank them for that. I hope the inspectors will now allow us to move forward with this important work.”

The Local Plan was approved by the council in 2018 after extensive consultation with residents, community groups, businesses and neighbouring local authorities.

It was submitted for examination last year, but this was halted when the inspectors raised their concerns about its soundness and legal compliance.

On the Radlett site, the inspectors had warned it was “the only realistic option” for the rail freight depot’s location and there was “robust and compelling evidence to demonstrate” that.

In its reply, the council says it now accepts “there is the potential to identify alternative sites for housing in the Green Belt but no realistic alternative location” for the depot.

Cllr Day said: “This is a major concession by the council as it effectively brings to an end our long fight against the rail freight depot.

“I hope our residents understand that we had no choice as it is clear we cannot stop the depot from being built by earmarking the land for housing or by any other means.

“If we do not accommodate the depot, we will not be allowed to proceed with the Local Plan and it will be drawn up by Whitehall civil servants instead.

“It is far better that major decisions about where to locate new developments is determined by locally-elected representatives who have a feel for our community.”

The housing planned for the Radlett site will need to be located elsewhere in the district so the LP can meet its target of allowing for 14,608 new homes.

In its reply to the inspectors, SADC also deals with some other concerns that were raised.

These include whether sites earmarked for development in the Green Belt were properly identified and their sustainability assessed.

Around 5,000 new homes are likely to be built on land within the city and other existing settlements. In addition, 11 broad locations for development on the Green Belt including land east of Hemel Hempstead were identified.

In its letter, the council says alternative Green Belt sites could be put forward during the examination and considered then.

The letter says that the other option of withdrawing the Local Plan to consider such alternatives “will lead to a further, very considerable elongation of the council’s overall plan-making process, to the detriment of the local area and its residents”.

Cllr Day said: “We are hoping there will be a positive response from the inspectors to our argument that the examination should now continue.

“A Local Plan is one of the most challenging tasks that any council has to undertake and it is not unusual for difficulties such as these to arise. We believe we have found a way to overcome them and progress and we hope the inspectors agree.”