Rethink on Park Street rail freight site plans

Protest against Helioslough's scheme for the Radlett Airfield outside Herts county council in Hertfo

Protest against Helioslough's scheme for the Radlett Airfield outside Herts county council in Hertford. In the foreground are Cllrs Aislinn Lee and Sandy Walkington. - Credit: Photo supplied

Alternative uses for Radlett Airfield are now being pursued after a dramatic about-turn by its county council owners resulted in a halt to its controversial sale to Helioslough.

Campaigners and residents have hailed Monday’s decision by Herts county council – which bought the 119 hectare Park Street site for £1 in 2006 – to defer selling to the developer as “courageous”.

It comes after a bitter, and expensive, eight-year battle to protect the Green Belt land from attempts to build a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) comprising five large buildings covering over 3.5 million square feet. As a sweetener, a bypass would be built and a country park laid out.

At Monday’s cabinet panel meeting, councillors heard impassioned pleas from opponents of Helioslough’s bid to build the SRFI, who warned them the recommended sale was undemocratic, detrimental to the area and a “betrayal”. A pivotal moment in the proceedings was when St Albans district council’s legal head Mike Lovelady referred his county counterparts to a particular court case involving a local authority.

He urged councillors to take into account changes in circumstances in the year since the Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles said he was “minded” to approve the scheme.

Gareth Osborn of Helioslough praised the firm and said the scheme would benefit Herts and neighbouring Radlett.

Then, before councillors could vote on officers’ recommendations to sell the land, council leader Cllr Robert Gordon stunned the packed chamber by revealing a list of alternative motions.

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Apart from shelving the sale – for now – the recommendations included urging Mr Pickles to make up his mind one way or the other about the future of the site.

Cllr Gordon also called upon the Secretary of State to base his final decision on any changes in circumstances since his December 2012 announcement, such as the merits of alternative major rail freight sites which may have since emerged.

And while in line with legal advice the council will enter a section 106 planning obligation in respect of the land with Helioslough, this does not imply its support for the scheme.

After the meeting, and approval of his recommendations, Cllr Gordon said: “There are some other potential uses which have cropped up.”

He confirmed there has been discussion about possibly having homes built on the site, which could take the pressure off Green Belt sites elsewhere in the district, or a football stadium.

Cathy Bolshaw, of Stop the Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE), labelled Cllr Gordon’s about-turn as courageous. She said: “We were surprised.”