Applicant Four Ashes - a partnership led by rail infrastructure firm Kilbride Holdings, and backed by developer Grosvenor and the majority landowner Piers Monckton - applied for a development consent order (DCO) for the scheme in August 2018.
The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) recommended approval in November 2019.
In his decision letter, Shapps noted that the proposed scheme would result in the loss of 297 hectares of designated green belt land and constituted “inappropriate development”.
According to the PINS report, local authority South Staffordshire District Council had argued that the scheme would result in “a significant loss of openness” and “represent significant encroachment into the countryside”.
However, Shapps concluded that “very special circumstances” existed to approve the project. The transport secretary cited the National Policy Statement for National Networks and its assertion that “there is a compelling need for an expanded network of SRFIs”.
Furthermore, Shapps said “there is a long-established and unmet need for an SRFI that would serve the needs of the Black Country and southern Staffordshire” and found “the need for the proposed development has been sufficiently made”.
Shapps said “full consideration” had been given to possible alternative sites, adding that this assessment had demonstrated that no suitable alternatives were available.
The transport secretary noted local concerns that the rail freight project could be used as a “Trojan Horse” to secure consent for warehousing served by roads in the green belt, citing South Staffordshire District Council's view that there is a "lack of certainty that a rail connection would be provided and the timing of such a connection".
Accordingly, Shapps rejected the applicant’s request to relax requirements around the delivery of the necessary rail infrastructure to connect the scheme to the rail network and said the DCO as drafted “would provide a great deal of confidence that the rail facilities would be delivered as soon as is reasonably possible”. The DCO requires the applicant to begin seeking approval from rail network operator Network Rail for the associated railway works before commencing the SRFI development and to continue pursuing these applications "expeditiously".
While the proposed development would represent a “significant intrusion into a largely rural landscape which would have a significant urbanising effect” and would have a “major adverse visual effect” on nearby homes, Shapps said this impact was outweighed by the “significant economic benefits” of the project.
The transport secretary said the development would support construction employment in the West Midlands and was expected to generate more than £680 million a year in “direct and indirect gross value”.
Shapps also considered concerns raised about the project’s likely impact on wind conditions at the Greensforge Sailing Club and on nearby heritage assets within the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Conservation Area.
He imposed an additional requirement for a “detailed assessment of the likely effect on wind conditions” at the sailing cub and how any adverse effects would be mitigated.
Any harm to heritage assets “would be less than substantial and would be offset by the public benefits” of the proposed development, he said.
In conclusion, the transport secretary found “the national and regional need for the proposed development outweighs any harm” and that “the very special circumstances needed to justify a grant of development consent have been demonstrated”.
In October last year, Shapps approved a strategic rail freight interchange near Northampton after dismissing concerns over traffic and landscape impacts.
Yesterday, Planning reported that Shapps had approved plans for a new road bridge at Lowestoft in Suffolk after concluding that the development would deliver an "iconic new work of architectural engineering", cut traffic congestion and support social and economic activity.