Railtrack targets green belt

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Railtrack is to urge the Government to relax the planning restrictions controlling green belt land, so that it can develop up to 12 rail freight terminals in the UK.

Railtrack is to urge the Government to relax the planning restrictions controlling green belt land, so that it can develop up to 12 rail freight terminals in the UK.

The controversial move is designed to allow the company to meet the objectives contained in John Prescott's 10-year transport strategy. A key plank of the £180bn plan is to achieve an 80 per cent growth in rail freight over the 10-year period.

Railtrack bosses claim this will only be possible if the Government reviews its planning policies.

Nick Ford, Railtrack's head of freight, said: "In order to cause a shift from road to rail freight we need to relax the planning system. In many cases the terminals will need to be in the green belt."

Mr Ford pointed out that it can take up to two-and-a-half years to reach a planning decision if a scheme is referred to a public inquiry. "We would like to see the process simplified and streamlined to reduce the risk of developing the terminals," he added.

He predicted that if Railtrack is to meet the Government's freight targets, between eight and 12 new rail freight terminals will have to be built.

John Wilmouth, Railtrack's head of rail freight property, also predicted that each terminal would require 30 acres of land and at least 100 acres for associated warehousing facilities. "In many cases this simply will have to be in the green belt," he said.

Railtrack is already embroiled in two potential planning disputes over terminal developments.

The company is planning a terminal on a 260-acre former colliery site in the green belt at Parkside, near Warrington in Cheshire. It has already resigned itself to a lengthy public inquiry. Similarly, the company is backing a rail freight scheme near Slough.

The news is set to reopen the debate over the protection of the green belt. Since John Gummer became the Conservative environment secretary, environmental groups and developers have been at loggerheads over the release of green-belt land.

More recently, the Labour administration was forced to clarify its position on the development of the green belt with the arrival of supermarket giant Wal-Mart in the UK. Following its acquisition of the Asda chain, there were rumours that Tony Blair had personally sanctioned the relaxation of planning policies - a suggestion that was later rebutted by Mr Prescott.

However, the release of green belt land for rail development poses a tricky dilemma for Mr Prescott. As Secretary of State for Transport and also for the Environment, he is charged with both promoting the railways and protecting the countryside.

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