Blog: 26 November 2020Why it’s time to love logistics

When you’re on-line shopping and click ‘proceed to check-out’, you’ve decided what you want.  You’re buying it and you expect to get it. As the customer, your job is done. It’s now up to the retailer to get you your stuff.

I’m simplifying, of course, but this is what millions of Brits are doing every day – and even more so since COVID-19 and lockdown drove us all on-line, even that demographic of reluctant adopters who wanted to stick with traditional shops.

Now, as Black Friday is upon us and the Christmas shopping ads are ringing in our ears, we’re about to see peak purchasing on-line. With reports noting that online sales were up 61% in the first week of November compared to the same period last year, expectations are that new records will be set for seasonal cyber buys.

But what does this mean for logistics planners like me? And why should this matter to you?

In a nutshell, it means change. Change has happened at the customer level meaning a structural shift in the on-line retail market. Change is now needed on the supply side with new employment land required for warehousing and logistics facilities – otherwise we’re going to see a disconnect between supply and demand that shifts the narrative around the sector from ‘pandemic success’ to ‘logistics crisis’. 

COVID-19 and Brexit induced demand vis a vis a lack of suitable employment land, a policy bias towards housing (including binding housing targets) and the most suitable land for logistics development potentially falling within ‘Protected Areas’ make for a perfect storm from a logistics perspective.

This is my assessment of what’s happened, what needs to happen next, and how we (within the planning and design sector) can play a part:

  1. Understand modern logistics so facilities can be built in the right place and connected into consumer markets: there’s so much more to logistics than big sheds on motorway junctions. Efficient supply chains mean putting those facilities where they can be most effective. Yes, some will be on the strategic motorway network but many will need to be on the urban fringe where they can meet the increasingly demanding delivery expectations of customers across large urban catchments. The National Infrastructure Commission’s Freight Study highlighted the problematic trend of ‘Logistics Sprawl’, where facilities are pushed beyond the Green Belt: away from the customers they serve and where most of their employees live. The detrimental operational and environmental impacts associated with Logistics Sprawl can be avoided by spatial decisions that facilitate more sustainable deliveries and reduce travel distances. That means building closer to homes and, in many cases, avoiding conflating the notion of sustainability with protecting the Green Belt at all costs.
  2. Councils need to re-conceptualize how they look at logistics as part of strategic planning: I’m sceptical about whether the current system of identifying employment land within a council’s Local Plan is going to support an effective, efficient, and sustainable logistics sector in 10 years’ time. Logistics needs to be recognised for the job it does and what it actually is, having a different and more appropriate status within any Local Plan. I don’t think it’s satisfactory to leave logistics in the overall bucket of ‘employment’ land. The industry has become highly-specialised and requires the planning system to see that, to adapt, and to identify land that’s matched to the job it needs to do. Plan makers should critically analyse whether they have set the conditions to allow for a positive network of urban distribution facilities linked to regional and national distribution centres. It would be inconceivable for new homes not to have an adequate water or electricity supply. Why is logistics infrastructure any different? Especially at a time when it has been estimated that around 77% of households now do some form of their grocery shopping online.
  1. The industry should do more to show its value: this has been a perennial problem because customers focus on what they are buying more than they care about how it actually gets to them and who makes that happen. If the system works, everyone just becomes accustomed to the service and takes the sector for granted. I’d like to see the industry use this period of enforced change to really sell itself and show its value. ‘From farm to fork’ has become a well-known slogan as food producers have messaged on provenance and connected into something consumers care about. Ironically, the catch phrase skirts over the logistics bits because, for most purchasers, knowing where their food comes from and how it was grown is what matters. ‘From shed to shelf’ is not as catchy nor is ‘from hub to home’ going to become common parlance any time soon but I do think we need to shout better and louder about what we do as a sector – and get some more credit for it. That will also play into the public acceptability of future logistics planning proposals. When you understand and value something, you feel very differently about it.
  2. Embracing electrification: as I write, the significance of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution is being chewed over by a great many people. The headlines around ending fossil fuelled vehicles though are clear and obvious. The automotive sector will be very different very soon. For logistics, that pace of change presents both a threat and an opportunity. I’d like to see those of us in the built environment industry respond with equal innovation in how we plan, design, locate and operate logistics property. In recent years, we have done a great job to achieve excellent energy efficiency within buildings but the next job, in my opinion, is to think bigger and to contribute to more expansive systemic change. To get to Net Zero by 2050, so many moving parts need to start synchronising better. EV charging is one. Location of buildings in relation to customers and supply chains is another. Understanding overall power requirements to operate buildings and vehicles is a third. This is going to make a big difference and we will all need to be alive to the requirement to innovate.

Everyone knows that COVID-19 has accelerated change. The logistics sector has proved its worth and some! 

Now would be a good time to reflect, not just on what we have learned in the last nine months, but also to think on what we must do in 2021. If we want resilience, if we want capability, and if we want even greater sustainability, we need to act. We need to plan better and more specifically to put the right buildings in the right places. We need to design better to meet aesthetic and environmental responsibilities. We need to communicate better, to inform our stakeholders and the public as a whole.

It’s time to love logistics a bit more. Logistics is for life, not just for Christmas.

Listen in to the latest episode of our podcast "How can we maximise social value in town centre regeneration?", where we look at the flipside of the on-line retail market.

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