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As you will know by now Bexley Council has agreed in principle to allow a
railway freight yard to be built on Green Belt land north of the existing Slade
Green passenger train depot; their motivation was not just money.
It was stated at the beginning of the meeting that the issue to be decided was, “is the rail hub a strategic freight interchange that would constitute the very special circumstances sufficient to allow development that would otherwise not be allowed in the Green Belt”.
There had been approximately 160 objections of various types and the concerns were mainly traffic and pollution levels and the impact on wildlife and existing high frequency rail services. A similar, but slightly larger (around 5%) plan was approved on appeal in 2007 but not further progressed.
The scheme should create 2,000 local jobs and pay £2,500,000 of business rates a year into the local economy and the developer argues that it would make a major contribution to a reduction in lorry movements nationally. They say the experience with Crossrail which generated extra freight traffic suggests that there would be no line capacity problems.
Stefano Borella was the first Councillor to speak and he was not happy about the loss of wildlife habitat. He was sceptical about the impact on rail movements too. Trains coming via Hither Green would not be able to access the site directly and there was nothing in any report to suggest that South Eastern Railways had been consulted. There was no mention of ThamesLink’s Rainham to Luton proposals either. Susan Clark (Head of Development Control) said that Network Rail claimed to be speaking for the Train Operating Companies.
Councillor Brenda Langstead, also Labour, North End said that Slade Green is frequently cut off by traffic congestion. Two hours from Mill Lane to the end of the A206 not so long ago. She doubted that the 2,000 jobs would go to Bexley people, why else was a shuttle bus planned from the site into Dartford? The area needs a bypass road, not a freight depot.
Councillor Val Clark (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling) said that Bexley Council lost on appeal in 2007 and that should focus minds now. The cost to the borough was £200,000 and Councillor Clark moved that the current application be approved.
Councillor Cafer Munir (Conservative, East Wickham) was of a similar opinion and that a managed ecology would be a benefit. He seconded Councillor Clark.
Councillor Danny Hackett (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) said that the cost of an appeal should not be a material planning consideration. The Chairman Councillor Peter Reader said it was.
Councillor Colin Tandy (Conservative, St. Mary’s) said he believed the site would, under Mayor Khan’s proposals, be part of the ultra low emission zone. He hoped that new rail locomotives would have better emission standards and felt that they must be used. Mrs. Clark confirmed that Councillor Tandy was correct about the ultra low emission zone. No one could confirm whether or not his contention that better locomotives were becoming available was accurate.
Councillor Alan Deadman thought the Committee was losing sight of the loss of Green Belt. It wasn’t fair on local residents that their questions were unanswered.
Councillor Alan Downing (Conservative, St. Mary’s) had three concerns. The loss of Green Belt, the effectiveness of the dedicated lorry routes and the claimed lack of impact on the passenger rail services. He “liked Bexley more than he liked Network Rail” but given the number of conditions imposed on the application he didn’t see it ever going ahead. Residents should not be swayed by millions of pounds.
Councillor John Davey (Conservative, Crayford) said that there was “a whole load of bad things” about the plan. The car parking provision was 381 lorry spaces and 1,167 for cars. That must mean a lot of extra traffic. “Shunting yards make a hell of a lot of noise and it will be a tremendous loss of habitat however it would be an absolute certainty that an appeal would be upheld.” He would reluctantly support the application.
Councillor James Hunt (Conservative, East Wickham) was particularly concerned about road traffic movements and felt that the extra freight trains must cause issues. He did not always believe Network Rail, “99% of the time to be honest with you”.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) thought “there are an awful lot of unanswered questions”. She felt that the “amenity of local residents was not adequately protected” and there is no guarantee that jobs will go to local people. She had “a cynical view of the number of traffic movements” and their routes to the M25 and A2 could have “a catastrophic effect” on local roads. The environmental concerns “are many”. Some of the claims were “an insult” and the loss of green space is “beyond the value of money. When the land is gone it is lost for ever”.
Councillor Brian Bishop (Conservative, Colyers) said that the Committee should take into account the 2007 decision when the inspector said that the Green Belt would be damaged but still allowed the plan to go ahead. It would be “unrealistic to give false hope and refuse it tonight”. A successful appeal might result in the loss of control of the conditions. The application had his support.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) said he could not support the application.
Councillor John Wilkinson (Conservative, Brampton) said the freight facility will not be fully operational for some 15 years, was the traffic modelling done that far ahead? He was told it was done as far into the future as 2031.
Mrs. Susan Clark rounded off the discussion by saying that having studied the Minister's current national policies and in all the circumstances she was convinced that approval was the best course for Bexley. Recent strategic appeal decisions had all gone against the Green Belt. The Chairman said the current application is an improved version of the 2007 plan and its success at appeal must be given “significant weight”.
The application was approved.
Fulfillment of the application will result in a Community Infrastructure Levy contribution to Bexley Council in excess of two million pounds.