Warehouses are taking over the Earth

If planners have their way, a 40,000 square metre-sized corner of Weekley Hall Wood, part of an ancient forest near Kettering in Northamptonshire, will soon be tarmacked over and replaced with a giant warehouse. The reason? The next-day delivery boom.
E-commerce now accounts for one in every four pounds spent in the retail sector – up nine percentage points since May 2019. But all that stuff has to be stored somewhere before it arrives in cardboard boxes at our door. And that somewhere is the “golden triangle” – a vast patch of land between Northamptonshire, Tamworth and Nottingham.
Logistics companies and online retail giants choose the area because it’s possible to get to more than 90 per cent of the UK population within a four-hour drive of anywhere within the triangle. It’s the reason why Asda was the first company to take up residence in what’s now called Magna Park Lutterworth, a 550-acre logistics park with 771,155 square metres of warehouse space, in the late 1980s. Since then, it’s become one of the main logistics hubs in the UK.

But, as our predilection for online shopping increases, the golden triangle is getting bigger – not just in the density of warehouse space within the area, but also the area itself. “It’s spreading north, it’s spreading south, it’s spreading east, and really it’s more of a diamond now,” says Kevin Mofid of Savills, the real estate agency, who monitors warehouse capacity across the UK. The golden triangle – or diamond – now stretches down to Milton Keynes, as far east as Peterborough, and touches Derby or even south Yorkshire at its northern tip. Yet while the warehouse space scatters further afield, it’s in its core where the biggest changes are happening.
In 2015, the golden triangle was home to 13.4 million square metres of warehouse space, or just over 1,875 football fields. In a report to be released this week, Savills now believe it has expanded to 18.5 million, an extra 715 football fields-worth. And it’ll expand further. Magna Park Lutterworth has planning permission to expand its warehouse capacity 60 per cent from its current size. Once expanded, it’ll cover an area equivalent to 208 football fields.

The reasons behind its expansion, and that of the golden triangle in general, is the result of the online retail boom, which, year-on-year, requires companies to store more options and inventory – which requires bigger and bigger warehouses. Online shopping warehouses require around three times the logistics footprint of physical shops. In the last six years, the size of the average warehouse in the UK has increased from 20,160 square metres to around 31,590 square metres.

Demand has also increased because of several supply shocks in recent years. Brexit, and the fears of chaos at the borders, disrupting global trade, resulted in many companies buying up warehouse space in order to hold more stock than usual in the last three or four years. Panic buying triggered by the fear of food shortages during the early stages of the pandemic caused companies to invest further in more warehouses. Issues with shipping in the last 18 months, including port closures to combat Covid-19, and the disruption to the Suez canal, an important trade route, focused minds further. “All these macro factors are conspiring at the same time,” Mofid says. “People want to hold more inventory. It’s changing the model from a ‘just-in-time’ to ‘just-in-case’.”
And ‘just-in-case’ means more warehouses in an area already blanketed by the hallmarks of the e-commerce boom. The people who live and work inside the triangle-diamond are increasingly worried about the impact the changes are having on their community – and now they’re beginning to fight back. “We are central, we are close to road links, and that’s why ultimately we seem to get more than our fair share of warehouses,” says Ash Davies, a Conservative councillor on Rothwell Town Council, which sits on the eastern edge of the golden shape-of-varying-edges. “With e-commerce and retail and all the online shops, the demand is ever-increasing.” Davies is a realist – “clearly they’ve got to store their stuff somewhere,” he says – but he wants the development to be done in a way that looks after the community and the spaces they use. Northamptonshire can’t simply become a giant logistics parking lot for the rest of the country.

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