Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Tom Pursglove.)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Speaker’s Office for helping me to secure this debate on the first day back. This debate is of vital importance to my constituents in St Albans and indeed in the neighbouring and nearby constituencies.
In 2014, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government decided that a hugely damaging strategic rail freight interchange should be built on the site of the former Radlett Aerodrome, next to the small close-knit community of Park Street in my constituency. What it means if it goes ahead is that 3.5 million square metres of green belt—the size of 490 football pitches—will be converted into a massive rail and lorry park with warehouses, lorries, container storage, HGV parking and so on. It will bring thousands of heavy goods vehicles per day, and huge disruption to the surrounding roads and commuter rail links.
Although that decision was made in 2014, it has suddenly been thrown back into the limelight because our local council is now being held hostage by this Government’s planning system. In effect, the council has been told by planning inspectors to drop its opposition to the monstrosity of a freight terminal or Whitehall will take away its powers to decide where to build homes. That is no choice at all.
A freight terminal in this location has always been a bad idea, but there are also new and compelling reasons why it should be reviewed and why the plans for the freight terminal should scrapped. Let us start with what the Government have told the people of St Albans so far. First, the Government say that they want to protect the green belt. That is great, but almost all of St Albans district is designated green belt. Secondly, the Government also say that St Albans District Council needs to build more than 14,000 additional homes in the next 16 years —that is more than 900 homes per year. Thirdly, as well as accommodating almost 15,000 homes on the green belt, the Government also want to build this massive interchange, the size of 490 football pitches, on the green belt. So here is the rub: it is simply not possible to meet the Government’s housing targets, accept a freight interchange and protect the green belt. It is just not possible.
Let us start with the green belt. As I have said, most of the St Albans district is green belt land. Every new strategic site identified for new development has to be evaluated to ensure that it does the least damage to the green belt. Initially, a decade ago, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said that the terminals did not fit with the development plan in the area. He said that it was inappropriate to build a freight interchange on the green belt, and on behalf of the Conservative Government he said that the green belt would be “safe in our hands”. He even highlighted the likely harm it would cause to the landscape and ecology. But after controversial lobbying of the Department by the developer, which was the subject of a complaint to the Cabinet Secretary by my predecessor, and despite his own objections, he went ahead, and in 2014 approved the freight terminal anyway—even while admitting the violation of the green belt in his official decision. In that decision, he said that this
“proposal would have a substantial impact on the openness of the Green Belt, that it would result in significant encroachment into the countryside, that it would contribute to urban sprawl and that it would cause some harm to the setting of St Albans.”
Just a month ago, the Government published their White Paper, “Planning for the future”, and reiterated their commitment to protecting the green belt. So my first question to the Government tonight is: in the light of their White Paper, “Planning for the future”, which commits to protecting the green belt, is it still Government policy to sacrifice 490 football pitches-worth of green belt for a monster lorry and rail park on this site? The Government changed course in 2014 and they can, and must, change course again.
Let us turn to the local plan. The local plan was approved by the council, on a cross-party basis, in 2018 under the former Conservative administration. That administration submitted a local plan that had suggested building 2,300 homes on this site instead of a rail freight terminal. The argument was that the rail freight terminal could perhaps be stopped if we tried to build some homes there instead. But the plan was suspended in January this year by Government inspectors. The inspectors have told the new Liberal Democrat administration that the site must be withdrawn for housing or the council will lose its ability to decide where to build any homes at all. If the council is prevented from keeping the site as green belt and from exploring the potential to build there, then the Government must revise the housing targets down or accept that it is on their watch that even more green belt will have to be sacrificed to meet their housing targets.
My second question to the Government is: do they accept that it is an unacceptable state of affairs that under the current planning regime the planning inspector can, and indeed may have no other choice but to, threaten to take away a local council’s powers to determine where housing should be built unless it stops fighting a Government-imposed freight terminal in one spot?
Then there is the disruption to rail commuters. Thousands of St Albans residents are Thameslink commuters. We have faced years of disruption, most acutely in 2018, when the botched introduction of a new rail timetable caused misery for thousands of daily commuters for months. Residents are rightly concerned about the capacity and the ability of the midland main line to accommodate the proposed long and heavy freightliner trains. How will they do that without adversely affecting the now mostly reliable operation of the passenger timetables of both Thameslink and East Midlands Trains services?
Then there is the rail infrastructure itself. The infrastructure work needed for this freight terminal is huge. Network Rail will need to dig deep into the ground to enlarge the height of tunnels—for example, at Elstree and near Kentish Town—and it will need to build a whole new underpass that comes off a spur from the down slow line into London, used by commuters, to access the depot. Many people just do not believe that, in engineering terms, this is even possible. There is also the risk that the rail element fails altogether, as it did in Alconbury, where the loop could not be made to work for engineering reasons. If the rail element fails, residents are worried that this site will simply become a giant lorry depot, with the implications for the infrastructure being environmentally damaging and creating congestion on the main road transport artery of the M1.
My third question for the Government is: when will they secure and publish firm and detailed plans from Network Rail about how it will manage the build and the operation of new freight carriages without disruption to passengers? Will the Government demand those plans from Network Rail and ensure that they are published before any works on the site can progress? My fourth question is: will the Government confirm that if the rail element does fail and cannot be built, as happened in Alconbury, the site will not be able to operate as a giant lorry depot?
Let me turn to the impact on roads and local village communities. Even under the existing plans, there will be additional lorry traffic on already busy roads. These terminals work on tight collection and delivery slots. Meeting those slots, and drivers’ hours requirements, will see many lorries parked up locally so that they can meet their slot. We already have issues with the smaller London Colney Riverside distribution hub, where drivers park overnight in lay-bys, using the roadside hedges and woodland as a toilet. Local residents can only see things getting worse. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on the village communities in my constituency of drivers, for example, parking overnight in lay-bys and using the roadside hedges as a toilet? Some have argued that the local impact could be countered by having a new M25 exit for rail freight, to avoid some of the traffic impact on local roads, but that has already been vetoed by Highways England.
There is then the impact of Brexit and the Government’s new freeports policy. The Government say that they will announce the location of up to 10 post-Brexit freeports by the end of this year so that they can begin operating in 2021. My next question is: in the light of the Government’s plan for freeports, do the previous freight distribution routes still apply, or will the proposed freeports make the rail-freight interchange redundant?
We also need to explore the effect of the London Gateway container terminal that has opened on the Thames since the strategic rail freight interchange was first proposed. It will have altered freight-distribution networks in the south-east. Has it changed the need for a terminal in St Albans? Indeed, the plans for Howbury Park have been dropped because of it. The Secretary of State said that the London Gateway site, developed since the rail freight interchange in Howbury Park was first identified,
“has the potential to provide an alternative development option for the provision of a SRFI to serve the same part of London and the South East as the appeals proposal.”
In the light of the finding in relation to a rail-freight interchange at Howbury Park, can the Minister confirm what assessment has been or will be made of whether the London Gateway might now also provide alternative freight capacity for the proposed SRFI at the former Radlett aerodrome site in my constituency?
For 12 years, local residents, local campaign group STRiFE—Stop the Rail Freight Exchange—the St Albans Civic Society, Hertfordshire MPs of different political persuasions and campaigners of all political parties and none have fought to stop this monstrosity. That is even without thousands of Thameslink and East Midlands commuters getting up in arms.
A Government-imposed strategic rail freight interchange in Park Street would occupy 490 football pitches of green belt. As a result, this land cannot be protected as green belt, cannot be used for housing and is unlikely to even work as a railway interchange, leaving it to just become a massive lorry park. A rail freight interchange would bring untold disruption to our village life and road and rail networks. It would require massive engineering in Thameslink tunnels to the south, permanently disrupt commuter lines and clog village roads with parked up lorries. Current Government policy holds this piece of land hostage. I am calling on the Government to stop the rail freight and let local people decide how they want to use their land.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing this important debate on an issue that I recognise is of concern to her, her constituents and, as she pointed out, her parliamentary neighbours. I know it is also of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), who has doggedly pursued it on behalf of his constituents for the last five years and indeed raised it again with me recently. I therefore recognise the concern that the hon. Lady and others have raised.
I should say at the outset that, as the House will know, because of the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I will not be able to comment on the merits or otherwise of past planning decisions, nor will I be able to discuss detailed policies in the St Albans local plan, especially as it is currently being examined by independent inspectors. That said, I wish to set the record straight on a number of points of which the hon. Lady and the House might not be aware. I should be clear—I think no one can disagree—that the site at the former Radlett aerodrome has, let us say, a complicated planning history. I should also be clear that once a decision has been issued and the challenge period has passed, the Secretary of State has no further jurisdiction in the matter. Any subsequent requests to vary conditions would be referred back to the council, as it would to any council.
The site’s future is in the hands of the site owners and the developers. Once planning permission has been granted, the decision whether to implement that permission is for the developer and any other interested parties, such as the landowner. Equally, the pace of the development is for the developer and any interested parties. Ensuring that conditions attached to any planning permission are met is a matter for the local planning authority—in this case, St Albans.
It remains Government policy to support the development of an expanded network of rail freight interchanges. Rail freight offers substantial environmental and economic benefits—I think the hon. Lady’s party will be aware of those and support them. It helps to reduce congestion on our roads and costs to industry. The 2014 national networks national policy statement—a statement made when her party was part of the coalition Government—makes it clear that a network of interchanges is needed to serve regional, sub-regional and cross-regional markets, and that London and the south-east are particularly poorly served by such interchanges. That policy commitment was underlined by the Government’s rail freight strategy in 2016. We believe it is for the market, not the Government, to determine where such interchanges should go, based on both national policy requirements and the need to ensure that capacity is provided at a wide range of locations.
Since the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, all plan-making authorities have been working towards getting plans in place, and it has been a legal requirement to have plan policies since 2014. We are clear that we want to see robust and up-to-date plans in place as soon as possible. Without such plans, communities are at risk of unplanned, speculative development. That is why in March my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set a deadline for all local authorities to have local plans in place by the end of 2023.
Unfortunately, to date, St Albans has failed to adopt a post-2004 Act plan. The current local plan for the St Albans area was adopted on 30 November 1994, some 26 years ago. To stop it expiring, a direction was made in 2007 saving specified policies until a new plan is adopted. Previously, a local plan was submitted for examination, but in November 2016 the inspector warned the council that the version submitted would not meet the relevant tests of legal compliance. It was withdrawn by the council in July 2017, but only after a failed legal challenge.
In November 2017, the then Secretary of State wrote to 15 poorly performing local planning authorities, including St Albans, to start the formal process of local plan intervention, under the criteria set out in the housing White Paper. I direct the hon. Lady to it as a point of reference for one of her questions.
In March 2018, after receiving assurances on planned timetables and collaboration with their neighbours, St Albans was notified that its progress would be monitored and any further delays might lead to a reconsideration of intervention. Before a plan can be adopted, the national planning policy framework makes it clear that it has to be legally compliant and pass tests of soundness. These tests are that the plan is positively prepared, justified and effective and consistent with national policy. For this reason, plans are examined by independent inspectors. I stress the word “independent” because in her remarks and perhaps in some of her other commentary the hon. Lady has suggested that the inspectors are Government inspectors. It might be inferred from her comments that they are somehow Government placemen and women. They are not. They are independent professionals charged with assessing plans under the law as it is constituted.
Few plans that are submitted, if any, are found sound without some form of modification, but inspectors are encouraged to be pragmatic. St Albans submitted its latest local plan for examination in March 2019, and it is currently at examination. Despite the extant planning permission for a strategic rail freight interchange, the version submitted for examination proposed allocating the Radlett aerodrome site for housing. Following hearing sessions in January and February this year, I understand that on 14 April the inspectors expressed serious concerns to St Albans about the legal compliance and soundness of the plan and a failure to discharge its duty to co-operate. I further understand that St Albans responded to the inspectors on 2 July, and in doing so it accepted the finding that the use of the land at Radlett, whether as an interchange or a housing allocation, was a strategic matter on which the council should have engaged and co-operated with neighbouring authorities.
The council is proposing main plan modifications that acknowledge the status of the interchange and will remove the housing allocation. It proposes to remove the housing allocation while maintaining that it has met the duty to co-operate. Finally, I understand from the Planning Inspectorate that inspectors have today responded to the council to confirm the concerns they have already expressed that the plan should either be withdrawn from examination or should not be adopted because the council failed to discharge the duty to co-operate—a strategic duty that the council accepts that it has.
I appreciate that this is disappointing news for St Albans and that it may need to take a short period to digest the contents and consider its preferred way forward. I hope that it will appreciate that I cannot comment further on this matter at the present time, but the hon. Lady has raised some important points. Some of the events I have recounted today do not reflect well on our planning system. I think she accepts that. It is a reminder of why the bold planning changes we outlined last month are so very badly needed.
Our proposal for a reformed system, as published in the “Planning for the future” document on 6 August, will make it simpler, quicker and more accessible for all concerned, especially local communities, and will put the green belt and its protection at the heart of those provisions. Our new processes will give greater certainty and speed for communities, councils and developers, because the Government are determined to do better when it comes to planning, with a better use of land and a better standard of beauty and environmental quality. In future, significant sites such as the one we have discussed today will have the principle of development agreed up front as part of the local plan. The result for the community will be greater certainty and a quicker process for getting on site.
We are also proposing a new 30-month statutory timetable for the development of local plans, so that the issues we see in some places, including St Albans, can be consigned to history. Our preferred option is for the duty to co-operate to be abolished, but it will still be vital for councils to work together, to ensure that cross-boundary issues are properly addressed, including on large strategic sites and the provision of infrastructure, which I am sure St Albans City and District Council will want to note.
The hon. Lady has made a powerful and passionate speech. There are items that I will want to address after further consultation with my colleagues in the Department for Transport. In the meantime, we look forward to working with Members across the House to deliver the much-needed planning reforms that communities are crying out for, to ensure that drawn-out scenarios such as that of the site of the former Radlett aerodrome can become a thing of the past.
Question put and agreed to.