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National Infrastructure Commission: UK freight infrastructure report

Recently, Government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published a report on the UK’s freight infrastructure which called on the Government to commit to decarbonise the freight industry by 2050.

The report reaffirmed the importance of freight to the economic functioning of the country, and this importance, or our reliance upon it, will only continue to grow as our population rises and consumer habits continue on-line.

 A key recommendation of the report is for the Government to draw up new Planning Practice Guidance by 2020 to help local authorities "in planning for efficient freight networks to service homes and businesses as part of their plan making processes".  This resonates with much of the recent Turley produced BPF Report “What Warehousing Where?”, which emphasises the need for Government and the planning system to place logistics on an equal footing to that of housing delivery, to ensure appropriate employment sites are identified to meet modern requirements, and clearer recognition for logistics to be embedded in the local plan process as part of creating sustainable communities. 

The environmental aspect of freight

The report specifically casts a torch on the environmental side of freight, with transport of goods accounting for 27% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, the largest single sector. The report does recognise that modal shift – that is the use of water and rail to distribute goods across the country - is increasing and will continue to have a role in managing air quality and carbon emissions. Movement by rail compared to road is already less carbon intensive per km than road freight and this is expected to continue as we electrify the rail network and decarbonise grid electricity.  

Our recent work that modelled the potential carbon savings from a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) provided some fascinating results, not least of which is the scale and significance of potential carbon savings resulting from a well-placed, well planned development. In carbon terms they should be seen in the same light as renewable energy projects given their potential savings.

However, the report ultimately recognises that modal shift will not be capable of replacing all HGV journeys and will not be the long term solution to decarbonising road freight. A more comprehensive approach is necessary; the issue of climate change and carbon emissions has never been so high on the public and media agenda, and long may that continue as substantive action is needed to reduce our carbon emissions.

The justification for decarbonising our road and rail freight system is warranted given the contribution freight makes to our carbon emissions at present. The impact upon air quality is also substantial and as such decarbonisation brings a double benefit of cleaner air and a huge step in the fight against climate change.

But achieving this will not be easy. The Government has an important opportunity to use the recommendations in this report to carve a global niche for post-Brexit Britain to truly become a world leader in the production and export of zero carbon freight technology and products, the demand for which will be almost unprecedented. Given our globally connected and highly respected car industry, market leading universities and research capabilities, a commitment by the Government to decarbonise road freight by 2050, and to introduce strong financial support to encourage the development of the necessary technology and its supporting infrastructure, could well start a new industrial revolution. This will require considerable finance, but given the potential benefits to our economy, society and  environment it really does seem like an investment in sustainable development to benefit all.

For more information please contact David Diggle or Colin Morrison.

8 May 2019

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