Rail freight developer to submit 600-acre ‘country park’ scheme to St Albans Council
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 September 2016
Opponents of a giant rail-freight terminal on Green Belt land will be dismayed to learn that its developer will shortly make an offer on the site, and lodge a scheme to create a 600-acre ‘country’ park.
The Herts Advertiser’s chief reporter Debbie White spoke with Segro’s business unit director, Thames Valley and national logistics, Gareth Osborn, last Friday (2), to get an update on the controversial project, and, for those new to this area, background on its initiation by Helioslough - now wholly owned by Segro - over 10 years ago.
Q: When and why did the strategic rail freight project start?
A: The original plan was submitted in 2006, in response to the government and the need and desire to increase Network Rail’s reach into the freight market, so there was a massive investment programme in the UK that is effectively linking up most of the main ports like Southampton, Felixstowe and London Gateway with the rail freight network, to take freight off the road.
On the Midland Main Line there is an existing halt, for Radlett, for aggregates for Tarmac, where you virtually ‘park’ your train. In terms of the government’s aspirations to get freight off the transport network, they made the decision to integrate strategic rail freight around the UK.
Q: Why build at the former Radlett airfield in Park Street?
A: The Government want to have a network around London. So they want north-east, south-west, around London, to service rail freight, because London is such an important market.
Why Park Street? Because it is well located adjacent to the Midland Main Line - you need to look at locations close to the existing network, so it ticks the box in that regard.
There are about 1,000 acres of land, which can accommodate the scale of development - the [depot] will be about 400 acres.
We have to also create, as part of the planning considerations, a public park of about 600 acres to replace the Green Belt.
So, it’s proximity to London and the rail network, and available land.
Q: Were there any other potential sites you were looking at?
A: There were other sites but they were smaller, and not strategic. The other [proposed] site, Colnbrook, got turned down by the Secretary of State six weeks or so ago - one of the reasons is because it wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t strategic, so the size is a consideration.
Q: Why did you choose to build in the Green Belt?
A: It’s not deliberately, but it’s because it’s the available site, it’s roughly 1,000 acres, and it’s available. We are very mindful of the fact that it is in the Green Belt, [so] we are creating 600 acres of parkland as well, which the public have access to, as a trade [off], a consideration against the loss to the rail freight terminal.
Q: The Herts Advertiser has been opposing your scheme for 10 years, and people here are not welcoming you with open arms. How do you feel about being public enemy No 1?
A: When we got planning consent, some of the comments weren’t quite as negative as you are putting forward … there are two sides to any discussion, but we are sympathetic to the genuine concerns. Because of the concerns, we are trying to replace the Green Belt, putting the Park Street bypass in, upgrading the connections with the A414, and the M25.
Q: How will the scheme benefit residents of St Albans and Park Street?
A: Park Street will get a bypass, which was a major consideration for them previously, and there are upgrades to the station and a whole raft of junction improvements. And if they want employment, there will be opportunities - not just picking and packing - this will be sophisticated warehousing facilities, we will be looking to have people with technological background, delivering goods, 3,500-ish jobs, when fully operational.
Q: There are fears that house property prices could drop in Park Street in particular. What do you say to residents concerned about the impact on their house prices when they come to sell?
A: I think things like the bypass will help them. At the moment there is a very busy road through Park Street, so that will help; there will be bunds around [the terminal], big earth areas, so you won’t see it, and acoustically, the planners have assured you won’t hear it. So if you are in Park Street in 10 years’ time, you have an area where you’ve got people using the bypass. And the scheme, will it affect their property prices? I’m not sure.
Q: Fighting the scheme has cost St Albans taxpayers a lot of money; how much have you spent fighting for its approval?
A: A lot of money, I honestly don’t know. I’m not being too evasive; it would be a significant sum.
Q: You must know. Is it hundreds of thousands of pounds?
A: Yeah. It’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of time and commitment.
Q: What was your reaction when Eric Pickles agreed to the project?
A: I’m passionate about the industrial base of the UK. The provision of facilities, modern facilities for industrial processes that take place is critical for the long term viability of the sector, and I genuinely believe that. Things like these new facilities are integral to ensuring our country can grow. So Pickles made the right decision.
Q: As a consequence of Brexit have you reconsidered whether there is a need for such a large terminal?
A: No, demand has been undeterred since Brexit. Segro is the largest provider of industrial space in the UK; we have a good eye on the market. We are well placed to be aware of any changes to demand - it is early days yet, but we haven’t seen any change. Occupancy vacancy levels across our group of industrial space is now 4.8 per cent across the UK and Europe, a historic low. We have about 60 million sq feet in total rented out at present.
Part two of Segro’s exclusive interview will be in next week’s Herts Advertiser.