In April 2019, the National Infrastructure Commission ('NIC') published its report, Better Delivery: The Challenge for Freight’. This was in response to the government’s request to provide advice on how to ensure an efficient, low carbon freight system, that manages its impact on congestion whilst continuing to provide a world-class service to benefit the UK’s economic growth.

What is in the report?

The report identifies the current and predicted characteristics of UK freight. It includes recommendations to:

  • promote the use of electric or hydrogen powered vehicles
  • develop a strategy to enable rail freight to reach zero emissions
  • develop standards for freight data collection.

What are the recommendations involving planning – and what are the implications?

The recommendations are essentially for new national planning guidance on freight and for local authorities’ developing their infrastructure strategies. The report also indicates how these should influence plan-making and decision-taking.

Plan-making

The NIC identifies that freight can be a ‘forgotten element of spatial planning’ and that the aspiration to provide more housing needs to be accompanied by proper consideration of the requirement for additional logistics space throughout the supply chain. New national planning practice guidance should help local authorities with their plan-making, in particular to:

  • assess the need, amount and location of land needed for storage and distribution
  • support clustering of related activities within a supply chain
  • maximise the number of freight trips made at off peak times
  • accommodate deliveries at the point of delivery.

The NIC recommends that this guidance should be in place by the end of 2020.

Within their infrastructure strategies, the NIC recommends that local authorities include a plan for urban freight. Bath, Brighton and Hove, Liverpool, Southampton and the West Midlands are working with the NIC as pilot areas using the recommended approaches. These include: investing in freight infrastructure; identifying suitable land for that infrastructure; and changing regulation to incentivise low congestion initiatives (e.g. reducing the restrictions on kerbside loading/unloading for participants).

One idea promoted by the NIC is that of consolidation centres. These are centres where goods from multiple companies are brought together to be distributed onwards by a single supplier, thus making the loading of vehicles most efficient. The NIC recognises that barriers to consolidation centres include the lack of suitably located land and wariness of operators to share a facility with competitors. Examples of existing consolidation centres are listed in the NIC’s evidence base, several of which have involved public funding to facilitate their delivery.

Decision-taking

Planning conditions (and section 106 obligations) will be an essential tool for local authorities to address the implications of freight. The NIC advocate that planning permissions for new developments contain conditions to optimise freight movements (e.g. timing and frequency) which can be done through Construction Logistics Plans and Delivery and Servicing Plans.

Another approach is increasing freight movements at non-peak hours. A key challenge is that local authorities have to balance competing interests – disturbance to residents at night and congestion. Given such deliveries could be exempt from congestion charges or similar schemes, this may incentivise operators to taking measures to minimise noise, enabling night time deliveries.

With the increased importance of and reliance on the logistics, distribution and freight networks, planning for integration is becoming an increasingly important strategic and spatial consideration. We expect that local planning authorities will come under increasing pressure to prioritise freight through the planning process (for example, through safeguarding or allocation of appropriate sites) and developers and stakeholders will need to engage in that process to ensure that coherent decisions are made which work for the industry whilst balancing competing interests.