Home truths for logistics
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of an efficient logistics network has been brought into stark relief. Delivery drivers have been classed as ‘key workers’, charged with keeping the country running, ensuring the NHS receives its vital supplies, vulnerable people are provided with essential goods and retailers and manufacturers get their just-in time supplies to keep operating. However, as we approach what is typically one of the busiest periods of the year for retailers and logistics operators, an ongoing failure to recognise how logistics and residential development go hand-in-hand could present major challenges to the sector’s progress and dent consumer confidence.
Even before the current health crisis, we had been witnessing exponential growth in e-commerce. Lockdown has accelerated that growth as more consumers, by necessity, have been introduced to the benefits of online shopping and many will undoubtedly continue to shop this way post pandemic. With England’s high street stores subject to lockdown until the start of December, it’s safe to assume we will see further online migration for Black Friday and Christmas shopping this year. Indeed, online retail association IMRG expects e-commerce to grow between 35-45% during this November’s Black Friday event, backed up by figures indicating e-commerce has already expanded by 34.9% in the year to October as opposed to last year.
Whilst this kind of growth might seem like great news for the logistics sector in a year when many other sectors have contracted, an undersupply of warehousing in high-population areas such as London and the Midlands is threatening important supply chains and piling pressure on online retailers and logistics operators struggling to site last-mile distribution hubs to meet consumer demand for cost-effective and speedy same-day delivery.
Back in 2017 we wrote a piece for Property Week (Where’s My Stuff? 15 Feb 2017) calling for a more joined-up approach to masterplanning residential expansion with logistics treated as essential infrastructure. Whilst recognition of the importance of logistics has grown in the intervening years – none more so than during 2020 – it is still being overlooked by government and local authority planners in favour of new housing.
As architects and masterplanners we are delighted to see government place an increased focus on the built environment as a vital driver for the UK economy, but the current build, build, build mantra is troubling because it leaves little breathing space for planning strategically or, to coin a phrase, “build back better.” The government’s recent planning white paper, Planning for the Future, makes no mention whatsoever of logistics in its 84 pages, instead primarily focusing on residential development. We fear that this de facto presumption in favour of housing will see employment land and spaces for vital services and amenities, such as shops, public transport and logistics, squeezed out at a time when they are critical to creating truly sustainable places.
As the UK population continues to grow, it is clear we need more new homes. But it is equally clear that we need a far more holistic approach to the way we masterplan, design and deliver the solutions; an approach that takes into account population and technology changes, shifting consumer habits and cultural trends to enable the sustainable development of residential, commercial and industrial space.
It is frustrating that the government’s proposed planning reforms pay little attention to industrial and logistics when existing planning policy, such as the London Plan, already recognises that, whilst we desperately need to create more opportunities for housing, employment space cannot be lost and that a sufficient supply of land and premises to meet current and future demands for industrial and related functions should be maintained.
We have always said that logistics networks need to “follow the chimney pots” and if we are to meet the expectations of a post-pandemic population grown used to next- or same-day delivery, we need to ensure the sector has access to the space it needs to site its last mile hubs. Further, as one of the UK’s major growth sectors, we should not ignore the employment opportunities that logistics operations will provide for communities if facilities are sited near or within residential growth areas.
We could perhaps learn a thing or two from our Victorian ancestors, whose model villages – such as Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight – brought together homes, gardens, hospitals and schools to sit alongside the factories that provided vital employment to their inhabitants. These villages, conceived by the great entrepreneurs and philanthropists of the era, were truly visionary in that they understood the necessity to combine different uses and activities to create high-quality neighbourhoods with proper socio-economic integration (for more on this, see The Model Solution).
A few years ago, SGP developed its own vision of the logistics park of the future which has echoes of those original model villages; a future where logistics facilities form an intrinsic part of a wider framework comprising a sustainable, inclusive and mixed-use, multi-occupancy environment, delivered as essential infrastructure and serviced by multi modes of transport. Funnily enough, the future we described only a short time ago is now today’s reality, and we are already starting to incorporate many of the elements we envisioned into our clients’ schemes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed how essential an efficient logistics network is to all our lives. It has also emerged as one of the UK’s fastest expanding sectors, creating skilled jobs and economic growth. It is also one of the UK’s most innovative sectors, at the cutting edge of technological advances and highly adept at creating intensive development to make the very best use of limited and expensive land. The time is therefore absolutely right for government, local authorities and the planning regime to take a fresh look at this vital sector and to understand that housing and logistics can mix. If we don’t start making the right planning decisions now, we are in danger of locking in unsustainable development that will create unnecessary supply chain disruption and poorly serve communities for decades to come.