As new railfreight inquiry begins, have we uncovered a fundamental flaw in Helioslough's traffic modelling?

Today was the first day in the new Public Inquiry into developer Helioslough's appeal against St Albans District Council's refusal of their application to build a massive freight terminal with a few railway sidings attached in the crucial Green Belt south of the city. I joined the demonstration organised by STRiFE beforehand and then we all crowded into the council chamber to hear the opening submissions - so many of us that the council's head of legal services joined other council staff in pulling out more chairs so everyone could sit. In his opening remarks the Inspector, Mr Mead, specifically referred to a letter I had written to him at the end of last week.  In this letter I had asked him to consider an adjournment of the whole Inquiry.

I had not made an external song and dance about this request.  It was not a stunt. But following Hertfordshire County Council's recent abject decision not to oppose the Helioslough application on highway grounds, my old Liberal Democrat friend and colleague David Parry decided to review all the highways data.  He then phoned me up and asked me to come over to see if I agreed with his discovery of what looks to be very dodgy arithmetic in the calculations used by Helioslough's "experts" to predict likely lorry movements in and out of the terminal. This is of crucial importance since up until now all sides have accepted the Helioslough lorry movement forecast. 

The discussion at the last Inquiry was simply whether the local road network could cope with this additional volume of traffic.  The Council, STRiFE and other objectors all argued it could not, the Inspector eventually ruled that the road network could cope.  But if the number of lorry movements has in fact been hugely under-predicted by Helioslough, then the Inspector was basing his decision on false data, all bets are off and the whole basis of the application should be re-reviewed. When David says something about planning, it is always worth listening to what he has to say.  When he was a member of St Albans District Council, he was chairman of the planning committee (the then equivalent of Planning Portfolio Holder) and he led the successful campaign against the then Conservative government's wish to see massive retail development on the "golden triangle" formed within the crossing of M1, M25 and A405. 

David now runs a local design practice.  He knows his stuff. So this is what I wrote to the Inspector once I was confident that Helioslough had a case to answer: Dear Mr Mead As Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for St Albans, I have registered my wish to speak during the days reserved for members of the public in order to express my reasoned opposition to the proposed freight terminal on the former Radlett Aerodrome. In preparing my statement of evidence I have been reading the material submitted by others and particularly that from Mr David Parry, chairman of the St Stephens Liberal Democrats.  As a result of reading his statement, I am writing to you without delay formally to request an adjournment of proceedings since he would appear to have exposed a fundamental flaw in the calculation used to generate lorry movements into and out of the Radlett site. He has noted that the likely traffic generation figures for Radlett have been generated by extrapolation from actual vehicle movements at Daventry International Railfreight Terminal (DIRFT) in 2005 and at Magna Park in an undated survey. 

Indeed all the parties have accepted the calculation. But if you examine the reasoning, it is the relative square footage of the warehousing at Daventry and Magna Park which is used to compare with the proposed square footage at Radlett in order to calculate vehicle movements from Radlett. However the Radlett warehousing is proposed to be 20 metres tall with a likely internal storage height of 18 metres whereas DIRFT and Magna Park both consist of warehousing mostly of no more than 12 metre internal storage height.  So already we have fifty percent more storage volume for the same internal square footage. 18 metre high storage stacks require automated rail guided loading and unloading systems, which in fact mean that the stacks are much closer together than in conventional warehouses using standalone forklift trucks.  So not only will Radlett have higher stacks than at DIRFT, they will also be closer together. 

On this basis Radlett could have double the volume of storage for the same floor area. This makes all the predictions of lorry movements totally understated.  Assuming Radlett is in line with modern norms in terms of turnover, we have to presume up to twice the number of lorry movements as predicted in the Helioslough submission. Since these were the figures used in the previous Inquiry – without argument I admit – this implies that the Inspector’s decision that the local road network could cope was based on false information.  The local roads will be overwhelmed and the balance of movement between road and rail will be radically altered making it far more obviously a road distribution site. I agree it is extraordinary that nobody has noticed this before.  I am only a layman in these matters. 

But I do note that all data about warehousing talks in square footage rather than volume – it just seems to be taken for granted.  The elephant has been in the corner and nobody has noticed it – until now. Mr Parry will be talking to his evidence on Public Day.  I will also be referring to these matters.  But the flaw seems so profound that I am formally writing to ask for an adjournment to give all parties the opportunity to re-examine the data. I look forward to your prompt response.

The Inquiry Programme Office had contacted me on Friday to say that the Inspector had asked that the letter be circulated to all the parties, that is Helioslough, St Albans District Council and STRiFE.  STRiFE certainly received it and they believe there is a real issue which Helioslough must address. Martin Kingston QC, lead counsel for Helioslough, said he knew nothing of my letter and was clearly taken aback.  Well he knows now. Today the Inspector told us that he was not going to adjourn the Inquiry at this stage but that my letter clearly raised issues which will need to be addressed.

There are of course many other reasons for opposing this awful proposal and I will be rehearsing many of them when I give evidence at the Public Day on December 3rd.  But we just could have dropped a depth charge into the whole process.  Lets hope so.

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