Urban congestion and the resulting emissions have long been the focus of city councils and local authorities, with an array of localised initiatives, such as air quality schemes, designed to reduce city centre traffic. And in London, it is increasingly common for borough councils to either mandate an offsite consolidation centre for new large retail or commercial developments to reduce vehicle movements into urban centres or insist a consolidation option is reviewed as a part of the planning process. In this article I will explain why despite government interest in the potential of these locations, the number of centres open still remains low, and explore how they can be used in conjunction with a comprehensive traffic management system to improve our urban environments.

The actions and demands by numerous London boroughs on consolidation centres seem to make sense on the surface; recent commercial projects have shown that vehicles visiting a large office block can be reduced by almost 70% if an offsite consolidation centre is utilised.  As an example, an office block of 4,500 employees could have more than 100 deliveries per day, comprising anything from office equipment and stationery, flowers, cleaning supplies and refreshments to mail and personal deliveries.  But while consolidation centres do have the potential to reduce the number of large vehicle movements into city centres, and thus lower emissions and road congestion, it can be difficult for companies to justify the business case for using them. A consolidation centre costs money to set up and maintain; to be financially viable, the fixed costs need to be shared across more end users to ensure long term sustainability. 

Retail vehicle movements play a huge part in the creation of city centre congestion with, often, multiple deliveries per day to many outlets, so offsite consolidation for the sector is an option to reduce costs and output of pollutants.  However, consolidation of retail deliveries can only be considered and justified in specific cases – it is not a one size fits all solution – and recent planning applications have shown that approximately 50% of deliveries to a retail centre are candidates for consolidation.

It is important that consolidation is viewed by local authorities as one element of a broader strategy for reducing congestion in our urban environments; retiming deliveries to quieter periods and smart road design are equally as important.  

Encouraging the use of consolidation centres could improve the congestion levels in and around our city centres – when viewed as part of a comprehensive traffic management system –  but its efficacy is reliant heavily on the redevelopment of the existing urban environment.  Local city or borough councils could take the lead here and implement consolidations strategies for their own workplaces. Many of our inner-city councils employ large numbers of people based in central office blocks; this is true of all of the inner London boroughs and the larger UK cities. Some of these office blocks may be a great candidate for consolidation. The authorities could help to create multi-user out of town consolidation centres and share the burden of the initial set up costs and the fixed costs associated with a fit for purpose centre. With 70% of office-based deliveries and 50% of retail deliveries suitable candidates for consolidation, this combined approach could make consolidation a more affordable option for many companies, should they decide it is the right approach for their unique business needs. 

As Clean Air Zones, pedestrian zones and cycle lanes become more prevalent, access to town centres will become harder; increased consolidation could play a part in reducing traffic in urban environments. The key is almost certainly with local authorities; not through the stick that is mandating consolidation, but the carrot that helps cover some of the initial costs.

If your organisation is facing a request from a local council to consider setting up a consolidation centre, Logistics UK Supply Chain Consultancy team can help you with initial feasibility study and further project development to ensure the project is delivered in the most cost-efficient way. For more information on Logistics UK’s Supply Chain Consultancy service, please visit logistics.org.uk/services/supply-chain-consultancy

Paul Wilson, Supply Chain Consultant, Logistics UK