Partner Karen Jones, head of Blandy & Blandy Solicitors’ nationally recognised Planning & Environmental Law team, takes a look at the impact the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could have on major infrastructure projects in and around the Thames Valley region.
Last year, we welcomed around 80 attendees to a Thames Valley Prop Social event, and hosted a panel discussion on major infrastructure projects on the horizon for the Thames Valley, including Crossrail and Heathrow’s third runway. This January, we welcomed Giorgio Framalicco, deputy director of planning, transport & regulatory services at Reading Borough Council for a similar discussion focused on significant local developments including Station Hill and the new station at Green Park.
It is clear that the ongoing situation and the challenging economic climate will have an impact on these major infrastructure projects, which are all so important to our region, so what is the latest position?
Heathrow’s Third Runway
Handling over 80 million passengers annually, Heathrow is Europe’s busiest airport. In 2019, the Airport dealt with a record number of passengers as demand continued to grow.
On 25 June 2018, the House of Commons voted 415-119 in favour of a third runway at Heathrow. However, in February this year the Court of Appeal ruled that the supporting Airports National Policy Statement of June 2018 was unlawful in a major blow to the Airport and its expansion plans.
On 6 May 2020, Heathrow’s Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye, reiterated that he believed that the Airport is a “critical economic plank for growth in the country” while outlining that a third runway may now not be needed for 10-15 years following the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the aviation industry. On the previous day, only 187 flights left Heathrow, down from 1,338 (a fall of 86%) versus the same date last year.
Mr Holland-Kaye did confirm that Heathrow was continuing to pursue its appeal against the Court of Appeal’s recent decision.
Crossrail (the Elizabeth Line)
As a subsidiary of Transport for London, Crossrail Ltd’s policies and procedures are aligned with those of TFL.
Mark Wild, Chief Executive, Crossrail Ltd said: “Essential and business critical work continues across the Crossrail programme but our priority is to keep our people safe and limit movement. …..we asked everyone who could work from home to do so and put in place measures to limit movement across the programme. As a further measure we have taken the decision with our Tier 1 contractors to temporarily stop station activity and close our sites until further notice.
Mr Wild cautioned that it “is too early to tell what that impact (of COVID-19) will be” but said that “it will have an impact”, before adding: “we are doing everything we safely can to keep the Crossrail programme on track.”
M4 Smart Motorway
The Secretary of State for Transport granted development consent for the application to upgrade the M4 between junctions 3 and 12 to a smart motorway in September 2016.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the project has continued at a pace, with Highways England suggesting that significantly reduced traffic volumes make it an ideal time to do so.
A spokesperson for Highways England said: “Our roads remain open and we will continue to maintain the network, ensuring that life-saving medicine, equipment, supplies and healthcare staff can travel to where they are needed most. All our sites have strict safeguarding measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and none of our sites are open to the public.”
Station Hill, Reading
Phase 1 of the landmark Station Hill project, a 2.56 hectare site adjacent to Garrard Street and Friar Street, was given planning permission by Reading Borough Council in July 2019. Developer Lincoln MGT plans to build two 12-storey buildings with a total of 538 build-to-rent homes.
In January this year, plans for stage two were presented, to include 750 homes, an 18-storey office tower (called One Station Hill), a 450-room hotel and a “pocket park”.
Lincoln MGT has described the project as “a transformational development for Reading and the Thames Valley”, with plans to create up to 1,200 homes, 100,000 square feet of retail and leisure space and 600,000 square feet of office space.
It remains to be seen if the COVID-19 pandemic will slow progress on the project over the longer term or lead to a rethink in how the site may be developed and used in the future, to perhaps reflect changing demand for retail, leisure and commercial office space and a looming period of significant economic uncertainty.
Blandy & Blandy is ranked joint twelfth in a list of the top rated planning law firms in the UK, while Karen Jones is recognised among the top ten planning lawyers in the country. The firm is also acknowledged as a top tier firm for Planning and Environmental Law in the UK’s leading guides to law firms, Chambers UK and The Legal 500.