Silence at Radlett rail freight peition debate

STRiFE Campaigners present their 10,000-signature petition to Herts county council

STRiFE Campaigners present their 10,000-signature petition to Herts county council - Credit: Archant

FEARS of legal repercussions meant county councillors were effectively muzzled from debating a 10,000-signature petition opposing a rail freight terminal on St Albans Green Belt, presented by campaigners on Tuesday.

Stop the Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE) protesters were greeted with a wall of silence despite making history when they presented their petition containing a record-breaking number of signatures to Herts county council (HCC).

The petition urged HCC to neither sell nor lease its land at the former Radlett Aerodrome in Park Street to Helioslough for a massive strategic rail freight interchange.

Campaigners have worked hard, backed by the Herts Advertiser, to obtain sufficient signatures to trigger a 15-minute debate in public at this month’s full HCC meeting.

But HCC leader Cllr Robert Gordon warned members against debating the issue. Instead, the issue has been referred to the cabinet for its decision.

Cllr Gordon admitted that no-one could be in any doubt about the strength of feeling among local residents against the scheme.

But he said he feared that if councillors made a decision at the full council meeting, it might later be overturned in court.

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He assured campaigners they would not need another 10,000 signatures to secure a debate but the matter would have to be considered by cabinet as that committee had the power to decide whether to sell off council land.

Cllr Gordon said the council was in limbo over holding a debate as it was a “prisoner to the process” and therefore must not be seen to be pre-judging the issue.

Helioslough has been urging Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles to ignore the fact that St Albans district council is going to Judicial Review over a decision in December not to conjoin a public inquiry into the Radlett Airfield scheme with one in Colnbrook, Slough.

Only a week later, Mr Pickles said he was minded to approve the Helioslough application subject to planning agreements. Helioslough now wants Mr Pickles to push ahead with a final decision on its scheme within the next fortnight.

Cllr Gordon’s comments followed the presentation of the petition by STRiFE representative Doug Hirst who warned the council against selling off “the family silver”.

He said the scheme would permanently destroy over 140 hectares of Green Belt with little, if any, discernible benefit for the county or residents.

Doug told councillors to remember that St Albans was renowned as a cathedral city, with a heritage extending back to Roman times.

He asked: “Do we really wish to exchange this prestigious reputation for one where the city is renowned for its monstrous rail freight terminal?”

Cllr Aislinn Lee said she hoped that when cabinet made a decision about “our land” it would allow all councillors to have their say.

After the meeting, Lib Dem parliamentary hopeful Sandy Walkington sympathised with the council’s muted response to the petition.

He said: “The difficulty is you have the lawyers for Helioslough watching like a hawk. If they say the council has pre-judged the process, then they can challenge it in court, so everyone is walking on eggshells. I think it is a problem because it shackles democracy.”