Victory for campaigners

VICTORIOUS campaigners have been celebrating their win in the battle against developers wanting to build a huge rail freight terminal on Green Belt land in Park Street.The long-awaited outcome of the planning inquiry set after St Albans District Council

VICTORIOUS campaigners have been celebrating their win in the battle against developers wanting to build a huge rail freight terminal on Green Belt land in Park Street.

The long-awaited outcome of the planning inquiry set after St Albans District Council (SADC) refused planning permission to developer Helioslough for the 3.5million square foot depot came last Thursday morning.

The proposed depot on the former Radlett Airfield included five huge warehouses with 20-metre-high lighting masts and parking for more than 2,000 vehicles.

Helioslough had also promised a by-pass for Park Street and the creation of a country park alongside the terminal to mitigate the loss of Green Belt land.

The council refused the application for a number of reasons including the destruction of Green Belt land, coalescence and the impact on an already struggling road infrastructure.

This decision received support from Herts County Council, Hertsmere Borough Council, the East of England Regional Assembly and the Highways Agency.

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First Capital Connect was also against the proposal, arguing that any greater usage of the Thameslink line would result in severe disruption to commuters and fewer trains.

The planning inquiry investigating the refusal of the scheme lasted more than seven weeks late last year and cost the district council £394,000 to fight - significantly less than the £800,000 originally budgeted. But despite the victory, the council cannot claim back any costs from the developer.

The impact on the Green Belt has emerged as the main reason why Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, supported the planning inspector's recommendation to turn down the plan for the rail freight depot.

In her report, Ms Blears concluded that it would constitute inappropriate development in the Green Belt and said it would cause a substantial loss of openness, significant encroachment into the countryside and contribute to urban sprawl.

She also attached some weight to the impact it would have on the historic city of St Albans.

But she pointed out that had applicants Helioslough demonstrated that there were no alternative sites for a strategic rail freight depot to serve London and the South East, it could have outweighed the harm to the Green Belt in the Park Street case.

Cllr Chris Brazier, the district council's planning portfolio holder, said: "I am delighted that the council's decision has been upheld, this vindicates the thoroughness of the planning process in the district and the attention to detail demonstrated by our planning and legal teams to defend the council's decisions."

Council Leader Robert Donald said: "Had this development been allowed it would have adversely affected the historic character of our city and district forever and in my view it would have resulted in irreparable damage to our environment and infrastructure and led to traffic gridlock in south St Albans."

But he also emphasised that he was not complacent and vowed to fight any further legal battle to "ensure this hard won victory remains intact".

Campaign group STRiFE (Stop The Rail Freight Exchange) was at the forefront of the fight against the proposal and they put forward their own case at the planning inquiry with funding and support from the public.

STRiFE was spearheaded by local resident Cathy Bolshaw who was told the outcome of the inquiry while away in Brazil last week.

She said: "The main argument from the inspector as well as the Secretary of State was partly the Green Belt issue but also the fact that Helioslough hadn't checked out other sites properly which was one of the bones of our argument against their evidence."

She added: "This is a massive result for the whole community and just proves that with a huge amount of effort and belief the community can beat a big company. Justice has been done. The Green Belt has been saved and the roads spared additional HGV traffic. St Albans and the surrounding villages have been spared a massive monstrosity."

Cathy went on to thank everyone who supported STRiFE including stalwart campaigner Karen Du Gard who died in August.

Doug Hurst, a Park Street resident and STRiFE campaigner, said: "We are tremendously pleased. A lot of hard work has gone in from a lot of people. It restores your faith in the system. It just goes to show that the authorities will take notice."

He added: "The alternative site assessment was shambolic and the district council and STRiFE proved that."

MP for St Albans Anne Main was also present throughout much of the planning inquiry alongside STRiFE.

Commenting on the outcome last week, she said: "This is the right decision. We want freight off our roads but don't want lorry parks in the Green Belt. The massive opposition to this proposal has been demonstrated time and time again over the last few years and it was always very clear that St Albans did not want this wholly-inappropriate proposal."

Sandy Walkington, the prospective LibDem Parliamentary candidate for St Albans, said: "It's brilliant news and it's a triumph for Park Street and St Albans' residents who sent petitions, turned up at meetings in their hundreds and just did not give up in their fight against this nonsense proposal."

A WARNING that the district may not have seen the back of Helioslough and their rail freight depot proposal was issued by a planning chief this week.

Although district councillor Chris Brazier has been celebrating the Government's dismissal of Helioslough's appeal, he believes that the door has potentially been left open for a smaller application to be submitted.

This is because Hazel Blears said in her report that the harm to the Green Belt could have been outweighed if Helioslough had demonstrated that there were no alternative sites for a strategic rail freight depot.

But Cllr Brazier, the district council's planning portfolio holder, said it would be very difficult for the developers to prove that the former Radlett Airfield was more suitable than any other site, especially considering the impact on the Green Belt.

Helioslough also have the option to seek a Judicial Review within six weeks if they find anything to challenge the decision in the final report, but on reading it in detail Cllr Brazier said he didn't believe this would be the case.

He said that another planning application for the site was the very worst case scenario.

In a statement following the announcement last week Helioslough said: "We are extremely disappointed with the decision. However, we are gratified that in the Secretary of State's detailed reasoning, she recognises the country's need for strategically-located, rail-served distribution hubs of the type promoted at Radlett and accepts the principle that they may be best located on Green Belt sites."

Helioslough added: "The decision in respect of Radlett hinges principally on the methodology employed in the analysis of suitable alternative sites. We are reviewing this and the decision in general together with our legal planning advisers.