The people of St Albans have been given “a ray of hope” by the county council, which has delayed its decision on whether or not to sell the land for a rail freight terminal.

The site was given a stay of execution by Hertfordshire County Council’s cabinet, who met today to discuss the sale of the land.

A last-minute motion by council leader Robert Gordon stipulated the sale of the site should be held until Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had made an “absolute decision” on whether or not to grant planning permission for the terminal.

Cathy Bolshaw from campaign group STRiFE said Robert Gordon's proposals were "the lesser of all evils".

She said: "His conclusions are fair and the council have their hands tied behind their backs.

"This is the least worst option."

Hertfordshire County Council met to discuss the plans this morning.

During a special cabinet panel, councillors heard from St Stephens Parish Council, STRiFE, developers Helioslough, St Albans District Council and Anne Main MP.

The decision was then made by the council’s cabinet committee, to which STRiFE member Victor Silkin presented a 10,000 strong signature petition.

Mr Silkin said: “I am quite sure that you are under no illusion as to the amount of opposition to this horrendous proposition.

“So I am now asking, were you listening to the people then? Are you listening now?

“The impact of this additional traffic on this area of Hertfordshire will be no less than devastating.

"Today, now, you have the opportunity to prevent this from happening.”

Another STRiFE member, Adrian Wallace, said: “We believe the recommendation to be falsely premised.

“It is not for the benefit of the county that the green belt is lost. There is no discernible benefit from the proposal for the county.”

Mr Wallace added: “This strength of feeling must have been felt within the four walls of this county council. If you surrender without a fight you will leave an indelible stain on this county.

“Take this argument to its logical conclusion and we will see St Albans Abbey sold for flats, and the Roman Amphitheatre for a skateboard park. You can only sell the family silver once.”

Councillor Bill Bryce, from St Stephens Parish Council, said the development would cause sleep deprivation and “traffic chaos” for its neighbours.

He said: “Enough land is being swallowed up for development, some of which is green belt land, without this area being inflicted with a monstrosity such as that proposed by Helioslough.

“This development has no benefit to the people of the area whatsoever, in fact it will have a detrimental effect.

“The prospect of 3,000 lorries entering and leaving the proposed site is almost impossible to contemplate. It equates to just over two every minute of the day and night. Even being generous that means 1,500 in and 1,500 out.

“The roads in and out of St Albans are very congested as it is and they just cannot take any more. At peak times the A414 is log-jammed and if anything happens on the M25 or M1 then the delays and chaos is multiplied.

“The noise from the freight trains entering and leaving the site will be horrendous. Sleep deprivation will inevitably follow.

“[Residents] will look out of their back windows and see massive slate grey warehouses looming over them – one of which bigger than Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

“St Albans is a historic city known world-wide and has to be preserved as such. We can’t afford to destroy that ancient heritage which has existed for 2,000 years.”

Anne Main MP said other uses for the site such as recreation, housing or a new school, would be more acceptable. She added: “The county doesn’t have to decide today just because someone is pressuring you. The housing market is taking off, the economy is taking off. I would argue it is not a good idea at all.

“This site may well be an asset that will grow in value and does not need to be disposed of today. For the future of our families we wish to retain this site for future housing or schooling potential.

“The county would be wisest to serve its electorate by choosing to use its asset at a time best for Hertfordshire and not Helioslough.”

Gareth Osborn, from Helioslough, said the terminal would bring long-term employment, money for the council, and local and county benefits.

He added: “We support the local community, we are a responsible developer.”

Leader of the council, Robert Gordon, presented his own recommendation to the council.

He said he was willing to enter into a Section 106 agreement in which the developer would pay towards community projects and infrastructure, which the council was legally obliged to do, but no more.

He added: “We have a legal gun pointed at our heads, but that is as far as I am prepared to go today.

“Short of the applicant changing their mind, there are only two ways this development might be stopped.

“The first is in the hands of the Secretary of State. He must consider changes in circumstances during the past year.”

These include the impact of the London Gateway, representations received by him, and the “relative merits” of alternative sites.

He suggested the council deferred its decision, pending an absolute decision by the Secretary of State.

Councillor Gordon added: “An alternative scheme could allow the council to discharge its fiduciary duties for a less offensive use.

“We will act within the law but we do not want this to proceed. We hope that alternative proposals will crystallise over the next few months."

Sandy Walkington said: “The first recommendation on the order paper was a betrayal of the people of St Albans.

“I am delighted that the council is now proposing to defer selling the land. I wish it was willing to defer the Section 106 agreement, because it is terrible and truly inadequate.

“This is a ray of hope. We live to fight another day.”