Why it's so hard to get consent for rail freight interchanges in the South East

A secretary of state refusal of plans for a strategic rail freight interchange on Kent green belt shows the difficulties of obtaining approval for such schemes in London and the South East via the traditional local authority application route, say commentators.

Rail freight: Kent scheme refused earlier this month
Rail freight: Kent scheme refused earlier this month

At the beginning of the month, the communities secretary James Brokenshire refused plans for a strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI) on green belt in London and Kent after finding that the proposal would cause "substantial harm". Developer Roxhill Developments had applied to both the London Borough of Bexley and Dartford Borough Council to build the facility on farming land straddling both local authority areas next to an existing train depot in Slade Green, Erith.

After both authorities refused the applications, Roxhill lodged two separate appeals in 2017, pointing out that another developer Prologis had previously won permission for a similar scheme on the site back in 2007. That project was never built out due to the onset of the global financial crisis and the permission expired. Now, Brokenshire has agreed with the planning inspector’s recommendation following a public enquiry last year that the councils’ decisions should be upheld.

In his decision letter, the secretary of state wrote that the plans would cause "substantial harm" to the green belt while the landscape and visual impacts would be "substantial and adverse". In addition, the proposal would cause "considerable harm to the convenience of highway users in Dartford". Agreeing with the inspector, Brokenshire said the London Gateway port in Thurrock, on a brownfield site outside the green belt, offered an alternative development option for an SRFI to serve the same part of London and the South East.

Importantly, Brokenshire also found that the developer had failed to demonstrate the special circumstances that would justify the removal of land from the greenbelt. He wrote: "The benefits of the scheme do not outweigh the harm to the green belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, and so very special circumstances do not exist."

The decision is notable in itself, but it should also be noted that not one SRFI has been built in London or the South East in the last decade. The only permission in the two regions since 2007 was in 2014 when former communities secretary Eric Pickles approved an SRFI on green belt at Radlett in Herfordshire after judging that it constituted very special circumstances.

The difficulties in gaining consent are despite the the need for SRFIs being explicitly recognised in national planning policy. The National Planning Statement (NPS) on National Networks states that there is a "compelling need for a network" of strategic RFIs. It also says it is important that these are "located near the business markets they will serve" and there is a "particular challenge in expanding the rail freight interchanges serving London and the South East".

According to Mark Kemp, member of local authority body the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport’s (ADEPT’s) transport board and director of environment and infrastructure at Hertfordshire County Council, part of the problem is that developers sometimes choose not to make use of the streamlined Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime for large schemes. He said: "Trying to show the strategic value of these things is quite difficult in the local planning environment. It seems to me that the ones that have gone through the development consent order process and have been recognised as nationally strategically important have fared better."

However, Kemp added that there are additional issues to contend with in the South East, not least London’s substantial greenbelt – as Roxhill found to its cost. "How you evidence the very special circumstances to justify releasing greenbelt is proving to be a real challenge," he said.

Simon Ricketts, solicitor and co-founder of Town Legal, agrees, adding that the sheer scale of SRFIs makes them inherently tricky propositions. "They take up an enormous amount of land," he said. "Big logistics sheds together with the gantries for the rail freight element are things that are pretty intrusive in terms of the landscape, so you do have to show very special circumstances. With greenbelt, you have to show need and without a really good evidence base that is difficult."

Politics – both local and national – can also be a problem, according to Giles Pink, associate director at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner. "It’s all very well having policy support for the principle, but there are considerations such as how politically sensitive the issue is locally and how sensitive the area is to the incumbent secretary of state and their party," he said.

What’s more, Pink added, it is no coincidence that two of the biggest SRFIs in the country – Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal and East Midlands Gateway – both received planning permission when former chancellor George Osborne was pushing his ‘northern powerhouse’ and ‘Midlands engine’ policy initiatives. "There were wider political benefits to getting those away," he said.

However, it may be that the Slade Green decision ultimately makes it easier to develop SRFIs in the South East. At present, there is no identified requirement for specific numbers of SRFIs around London but the inspector concluded on the Slade Green appeal that there is a need for such a requirement. Jonathan Bower, partner at Womble Bond Dickinson, said: "This was endorsed by the secretary of state and will be of comfort for promoters of other schemes."

Strategic rail freight interchange decisions in England, 2007-19

  • Howbury Park, Erith, ProLogis Development, 29 hectares - appeal allowed by secretary of state December 2007
  • Kent International Gateway, Maidstone, AXA Real Estate, 112 hectares - appeal refused by secretary of state August 2010 Radlett Aerodrome, St Albans, Helioslough, 33 hectares - appeal allowed by secretary of state July 2014
  • Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, Prologis, 69 hectares - development consent order (DCO) approved July 2014
  • East Midlands Gateway Rail Freight Interchange, Roxhill and Segro, 283 hectares - DCO approved January 2016
  • Slough International Freight Exchange, Goodman, 58 hectares - appeal refused by secretary of state July 2016
  • Slade Green, Erith, Roxhill Developments, 57 hectares - appeal refused by secretary of state May 2019

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