This is entry number 16 of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

The Planning Act 2008 introduces a new regime for authorising sixteen types of nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP). This entry focuses on one of these – rail freight interchanges.

Rail freight interchanges (RFIs) are the least known of the five transport NSIPs – everyone has heard of airports, ports, roads and railways, the other four. Nevertheless, they are a key type of infrastructure – and often a controversial one – bringing freight often from overseas to distribution centres or close to urban centres to minimise the use of more environmentally damaging lorries. That they can be controversial is well illustrated by the proposed Radlett RFI – more on which later, as it provides an interesting case in point as to how the new system will work.

National policy on rail freight interchanges will be contained in the ‘National Networks National Policy Statement’ (NPS), due to be published in draft this autumn (and of course this blog will let you know when that happens). Freight may also get a mention in the Ports NPS, also due to be published in draft this autumn.

For a project to be above the threshold that makes it an NSIP and hence subject to the provisions of the Planning Act 2008 for authorisation, the main criterion is that it has to be at least 60 hectares in size. Only English RFIs are included, and military establishments are excluded. There are other criteria that are likely to be met if the size one is met – the RFI must

  • be capable of handling at least four trains per day,
  • be capable of handling goods from more than one consignor to more than one consignee,
  • be connected to the national rail network, and
  • contain warehouses to which goods can be delivered.

The expansion of an existing RFI is also included if it (the expansion, not just the whole expanded RFI) will be at least 60 ha and all the other criteria are met as well.

To give you some idea of the size of an RFI NSIP, the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT) is one of the UK’s largest at 174 hectares, so well above the threshold, but the current expansion of it – DIRFT 2 – although substantial is only 53.8 hectares, so it would not have been an NSIP had it been applied for after 1 March 2010, when the new regime gets switched on for RFIs. Thus only the very tip of the RFI iceberg will come before the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).

A controversial application is being pursued by HelioSlough at Radlett in Hertfordshire. This is for an RFI on a disused airfield near St Albans. It is controversial because it would be on green belt land and is close to centres of population, although it would bring generalised environmental benefits that moving freight from road to rail brings – adverse impact versus benefits, seem familiar? The first application was refused by St Albans council and then also refused on appeal. The main reason given was that the resistance to building on the green belt could have been overcome if the applicants had shown that there was no alternative site, but they had not done so to a convincing enough degree.

HelioSlough have applied again and this time the application is accompanied by a much more thorough consideration of alternatives. It was refused again by St Albans council last month, and HelioSlough is expected to appeal again.

What would have happened under the new system? This may not be an academic question, for if HelioSlough resubmits the application after 1 March 2010, it will have to make it to the IPC and not St Albans council, and it will have to be in the new form of a development consent order and not just a planning application. It is one of the few examples of the new regime taking decision-making away from local authorities rather than the government, although the largest schemes will often get ‘called in’ by the government for its own decision.

The project is certainly over the size threshold at some 170 ha, and would be capable of handling 24 train movements per day. The other criteria will almost certainly be met – and of course it is the capability of the site rather than what will actually happen there that matters.

Assuming that the project accords with the forthcoming National Networks NPS, the application would be a case in point of the main test in the Planning Act that the IPC must consider: would the adverse impacts outweigh the benefits? How will the IPC weigh harm to local residents and the local environment against benefits such as improvement in the national infrastructure and overall reductions in emissions? It is this comparison between apples and oranges that lies at the heart of the new system and how it is interpreted will be a mark of its success or failure.