Today's entry reports on recent adverse decisions on proposed rail freight interchanges.

One of the 12 types of nationally significant infrastructure project that must now be considered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) (with four more to follow) is that of rail freight interchanges (RFIs). These are large distribution parks that allow goods to be transferred to and from road and rail. The Planning Act threshold has various elements but the main one is a size threshold of at least 60 hectares.

Only one RFI is currently on the IPC's project list, the proposed adjunct to the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, DIRFT 3, on land formerly used for the Rugby Radio Station in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. Given how proposals in the south-east have fared recently, however, one might think more will follow, but the most likely application may not use the IPC.

Like many large infrastructure projects, RFIs have an immediate local impact (here, the intensification of transport movements at the site), but a wider benefit because of the greater use of low-carbon rail rather than with high-carbon and road-congesting heavy goods vehicles. The roads from which lorries are removed are not in the immediate vicinity of the RFI, and the sites are often on green belt land or in the countryside, which generates considerable opposition. For every proposed [insert name] International Freight Exchange, there is inevitably a Stop [insert name] International Freight Exchange group.

In the absence of a national policy statement for rail freight (to be included in the forthcoming National Networks NPS), the government continues to rely on the RFI strategy of the now defunct Strategic Rail Authority, published in 2004 (and found here). This advocates 'three or four' new RFIs around the M25 near major rail routes. It is the implementation of this policy, which has recently moved one step forward and two steps back, that sets the context for what follows.

Unfortunately for those not following the debate closely, the various sites being proposed all seem to have several names. I have tried to give all of the alternatives.

St Albans

 In July, the Secretary of State rejected the recommendation of a planning inspector and refused permission for a rail freight interchange on the site of the former Radlett Aerodrome near St Albans in Hertfordshire (so is known as Helioslough (the promoters), St Albans or Radlett) (decision letter here). The promoters had previously applied to the local authority, been turned down, appealed, and lost at a planning inquiry due to lack of consideration of alternative sites. This time they took great trouble to consider alternatives, applied to the local authority again, were turned down again, appealed and this time won over the inspector at the inquiry, only to be refused by the Secretary of State. Interestingly the crux of the matter was that the Secretary of State thought that there was a viable alternative that would do less harm, at Slough, more on which later.

Helioslough have launched judicial review proceedings in the High Court to challenge the decision to turn down the appeal. Whereas a planning inquiry is effectively a rehearing of the case, court proceedings can only be on legal issues. But don't hold your breath - the proceedings are likely to take place in January or February.

Maidstone

More recently, another RFI application has been lost on appeal. This one is, or was, known as the Kent International Gateway (KIG) (a.k.a. Maidstone or Bearsted). The promoters, Axa, were turned down by the local authority, appealed, and lost their appeal earlier this month. The decision letter is here. The main reasons that the appeal was lost were that there was an adverse effect on the adjoining Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and on the village of Bearsted, and that need was not sufficiently demonstrated because the site was too far away from London. Perhaps the real killer was that the Secretary of State did not believe that lorries would come across the channel and then disgorge their goods onto trains at the site to be distributed around the UK, i.e. it would not actually work as an RFI.

Arguably too (although not mentioned in the decision letter) the south-east London slot for an RFI has already been taken up by the proposal at Howbury Park on the border of Kent and Greater London (a.k.a. Dartford, Bexley), for which ProLogis secured permission in 2008.

Worth noting is that (unlike the inspector's report) Secretary of State's decision letter was written in the absence of the South East Plan, the regional-level policy document that was revoked along with its counterparts elsewhere in England (except London) by the coalition government. This is stated not to have affected the decision.

Slough

Meanwhile, Goodman, promoter of the proposed site at Slough (a.k.a. Colnbrook, or SIFE) has received something of a boost to its ambitions by being named in the Radlett decision as a preferred alternative. This proposal is also one that has risen from the ashes of another, which was known as LIFE (London International Freight Exchange), and was an application made by Argent that was turned down in 2002. Goodman argues that the policy landscape has changed since 2002, not least from the granting of the Howbury Park RFI further east.

What is interesting from a Planning Act perspective is that the promoter of SIFE is not intending to make an application to the IPC under the Planning Act despite the area of the site being more than 60ha. The IPC disagrees with its analysis - the dispute boils down to what land you include in your calcualtion. The argument is visible for all to see on the IPC website in its advice log (enter 'Willmore' into the search field).

Robert McCracken QC predicted legal arguments about whether a project was nationally significant or not (for the purposes of the Planning Act) at the 2009 Oxford Planning Conference (see his paper here), and this could be the first such dispute. If Goodman make a planning application to Slough Borough Council, will the IPC challenge it? Watch this space.