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Column - September 2010

Localism must not damage the economy and the environment

If the Coalition Government is to achieve its stated policies, enshrined in the Coalition Government agreement of May 2010 to make the transport sector greener and more sustainable, it needs to address strategic planning in its Localism Bill, otherwise the economy and the environment will suffer. This level of transport planning is needed where decisions taken locally have a wider than local impact to give confidence to investors, infrastructure providers, community initiatives, transport operators, developers and local enterprises.

Two planning application refusals for Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges (SRFIs) in the South East at Radlett and Kent International Gateway, within a month of each other, demonstrate the conflict between localism and the economy and the need for strategic planning. Both applications failed to gain consent largely because of local opposition. While there would have been local disadvantages with the SRFIs such as increased HGV movements these issues need to be balanced against the economic social and environmental benefits to the wider UK society as a whole of the shift to rail. Road/rail interchanges are needed if rail freight is to play its full role in reducing freight’s carbon emissions and alleviating road congestion However, there is a danger that localism could damage economic growth and recovery because local opposition will kill many projects which have local disadvantages despite wider economic and environmental gains to society as a whole. The abolition of regional spatial strategies which set the wider regional case  for these rail/road transfer points, leaves a planning void, with only local plans retained, until a national framework is established so we will be pressing the Coalition Government to address ‘larger than local planning’. Local plans remain crucial for setting the spatial framework within a local authority boundary but transport planning is rarely confined to an individual local authority area, so a mechanism is needed which addresses  the wider sub-regional transport policy agenda. The previous policies within regional spatial strategies had limitations so this planning review is an opportunity to institute guidelines in both the National Networks Policy Statements and the National Planning framework which tackle climate change and road congestion. The National Policy Statements should state that any new freight interchanges/depots should be sited where they are capable of being rail served. It should also ensure that evidence based research with quantified study and calculations based upon modelling is taken into account in any planning approval process.      

Clarity is needed on planning policy if rail freight is to expand and play its full role in the green economy;  rail freight needs approval for a network of terminals, situated in the right places to meet market requirements so that freight’s emissions, road congest and exposure to road accidents can be cut. The sustained growth of rail’s share of consumer traffic over the past 7 years demonstrates the demand for this alternative mode for trunk haul.

Freight on Rail members will be engaging with the Departments of Communities and Local Government, Transport and Business, Innovations and Skills to find a solution which allows the Coalition to realise its aims to grow the green economy. Rail freight can be justified on the basis of climate change, and transport cost efficiency grounds.  

Getting spatial planning right is crucial for the economy and the good news is that it does not require extra government spending unlike most schemes. Therefore, Freight on Rail is part of a Planning coalition of 29 organisations including Planning Officers Society, ICE, British Property Federation, Town & country Planning Association WWF-UK headed up by the Royal Town Planning Institute, lobbying the Coalition Government to get the right planning framework.

Localism must not miss the bigger picture - 5th August

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