West Midlands mega logistics hub edges closer to reality

The numbers make for compelling reading: a 297 ha rail freight hub in the heart of the West Midlands capable of accommodating more than 8m sq ft of industrial space, including ‘mega sheds’ of 1m sq ft-plus.

Opportunities like this do not come along often, as Peter Frost, managing director of developer Four Ashes, knows all too well. Nor are they delivered overnight. Four Ashes has been working up plans for the West Midlands Interchange since 2007-08 and, if everything goes smoothly, the scheme will be close to fully built out by the mid-2030s.

So what happens between now and then?

The strategic rail interchange is being proposed near junction 12 of the M6, which is adjacent to the West Coast Main Line.

Four Ashes unveiled plans for the scheme last year when it carried out a voluntary consultation with members of the public, but the plans have been percolating since the late 2000s.

Network Rail saw the benefits of developing strategic rail freight interchanges - Peter Frost, Four Ashes

“We sat down in 2007-08 and we were looking for a large logistics site that could be rail connected in the northern section of the West Midlands to mirror what has happened with DIRFT at Daventry because we thought there was huge unmet demand for these sorts of facilities,” recalls Frost. “We talked to Network Rail, which saw the benefits of developing strategic rail freight interchanges and wanted to help with the site.”

However, sites of this type are not easy to locate. They have to be next to major motorway and road networks, have rail infrastructure running through them, be pretty sizeable and, most importantly, be developable.

“The only site we found was this one,” says Frost. “And the market report by Savills confirmed what we felt about the demand side. There has been no land allocation for logistics use in the northern part of the West Midlands for decades.”

Large warehouses

Four Ashes is a joint venture between Kilbride Holdings, Grosvenor Group and a private landowner in the area who owns a sizeable chunk of the site - the JV partners have signed options on the rest of the land. When fully built out, the site will feature a 775m rail terminal and as much as 8m sq ft of industrial space.

“The site has the ability to provide very large warehouse footprints,” says Frost. “Without trying too hard, the largest one would be about 1.2m sq ft, but if we needed to do something larger I’m sure we could look at that.”

No formal marketing to potential occupiers has taken place yet, but Frost says the interest shown to date has been “very reassuring”, as has feedback from members of the public: Frost says that more than 300 people commented on the initial plans for the interchange, which were presented to the public last year, and that their feedback was incorporated when detailed plans for the site were drawn up.

These plans were unveiled earlier this month at a series of public consultation events and Frost was buoyed by the reception they received.

National significance

“We got lots of good comments and suggestions on how we can improve some of the community parts that we’re offering as part of the project,” he says.

“The biggest topic has been highways because we’re proposing some fairly significant changes to the way the traffic flows around that particular area, so people have been very interested to see how those proposals are taking shape. There are some objectors - people who do not want to see the land developed - and we recognise there will be an impact on people, but the benefits are very significant.”

Because of the scale and national significance of the interchange, it will need to receive a development consent order from the secretary of state for transport. Frost is hopeful that once the public consultation ends next month, the company will take on board responses from the general public and submit an application by the end of the year.

If this target is hit, he thinks a decision on the application could be made by the secretary of state for transport by the middle of 2019 and the JV partners could crack on with the first phase - which is predominantly infrastructure work - in 2020. And that is when the hard work begins.

“It’s going to take us 15 years to get through the bulk of the phasing - maybe slightly longer than that depending on how things go,” says Frost. “Schemes of this nature don’t come along that often.”

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