A radical change of direction could soon be underway for the freight and logistics industry, following publication of the government’s new Future of Freight plan. Calls for evidence on various aspects of its vision and priorities have already started to land.

Caroline Musker

Caroline Musker

This is the first-ever plan to address the disconnect and policy vacuum that currently exist between the industry and local planning authorities (LPAs). It is hoped that the calls for evidence will ensure there is a clearer understanding of the rapidly changing needs of the sector and help to establish a collaborative cross-sector approach that could become a force for really positive change.

The steady erosion of industrial land in London and other key cities, combined with growing demand for warehouse and distribution space, accelerated by the switch to ecommerce during the pandemic, has contributed to the complex set of challenges now facing the freight and logistics industry.

Among the five priorities identified in the plan is the call for planning reforms to address problems that often arise when seeking planning permission and securing land allocations for freight and logistics use. Coming so soon after the planning white paper in 2020, the plan is yet another challenge for over-stretched planning officers and under-resourced LPAs.

However, most are coming to understand that successive governments have prioritised the need for housing, and there is now an urgent need to adopt a more balanced approach, particularly given the importance of the sector to the economy, levelling up and the post-pandemic recovery.

It mustn’t be forgotten that there is an acute shortage of planning professionals too and more commitment is needed to attract new entrants into the planning profession to ensure that there is sufficient staff and skills to deliver the reforms proposed in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

Clear guidance is needed to support LPAs in making balanced decisions that reflect the needs of the communities in their area, and the government has taken a step in the right direction by reaching out to the industry for more information about what is needed and where.

To support the implementation of planning reforms, there must also be greater focus on changing perceptions of the freight and logistics sector. This will help to raise understanding of the contribution that distribution hubs and other infrastructure bring economically, environmentally and in terms of social value. The industry itself can support this re-education process by providing clear and meaningful data.

Driving changes and altering perceptions will require strong collaboration and leadership. For this reason, the plan’s proposal to create a new Freight Council, comprising key stakeholders from industry, the Department for Transport and other government agencies is a smart move, and ensures accountability. In particular, it is hoped that the plan’s narrative isn’t watered down and commitments to define a National Freight Network and facilitate more large-scale freight-related infrastructure developments.

While planning policy reforms are bound to attract attention, it is important that other priorities, such as the urgent need to focus on people and skills, aren’t overlooked. To increase the capacity of the UK’s freight and logistics industry, greater focus on changing perceptions is key. This will be achieved by raising awareness of the employment and training opportunities available and the improved working conditions that are now available at locations across the UK.

Playing a part in this process, Prologis launched its Warehouse and Logistics Training Programme at RFI DIRFT, the UK’s most successful road-rail intermodal freight terminal.

With central government currently in a state of flux, the timing of this plan is unfortunate. However, the idea of empowering LPAs to deliver policy changes is well timed, and with the right backing and collaboration this initiative will ensure that the freight and logistics industry finally gets the attention it deserves.

Caroline Musker is head of planning at Prologis UK