Conservatives in Harpenden have criticised the Liberal Democrats for maintaining a national housebuilding target of 380,000 homes per year.

Matt Cowley, a local Conservative campaigner who chaired Harpenden Town Council's Planning Committee between May 2021 and May 2023, is accusing the Lib Dems of abandoning promises made during this year's local election campaign.

He says that they "made protecting the Green Belt their main campaign issue in Harpenden West", where he stood for re-election in May, losing by 67 votes.

Herts Advertiser: Matt Cowley was previously chair of Harpenden Town Council's Planning Committee.Matt Cowley was previously chair of Harpenden Town Council's Planning Committee. (Image: Matt Cowley)

Now, he argues that the Lib Dem decision to maintain a national target shows that "you cannot trust the Lib Dems to keep their promises on the Green Belt - they will say one thing and do another".

During the election campaign, Liberal Democrats in Harpenden distributed leaflets that said top-down, national housing targets would "destroy our Green Belt" and "do not tackle existing problems of overcrowding and lack of affordable homes".

But a vote to determine national party policy at the recent Liberal Democrat conference ensured that they remain committed to a target of building 380,000 homes per year in England. This is a higher target than the 300,000 set by the Conservative government.

Victoria Collins, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, disputes the idea that her party's policy is based on top-down targets.

Herts Advertiser: Victoria Collins the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted.Victoria Collins the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted. (Image: Victoria Collins)

She says that the Liberal Democrats have "agreed that housing numbers should be calculated from the bottom up, based on community housing needs and achievable local targets that protect the greenbelt".

The motion passed at party conference states that the national target would be "translated" into "achievable local targets, creating sustainable communities and rewarding local authorities that support the housing growth agenda".

Building on the Green Belt is a controversial topic in our area. St Albans City & District Council's draft Local Plan, published earlier this year, identifies room for more than 1,500 new homes that could be built on the Green Belt around Harpenden.

Cllr Chris White, leader of the council, says that a government-imposed target means they had to find land for 15,000 new homes to be built over the next 17 years.

But this has been questioned by campaigners from CLASH (Campaign by Locals Against Sewell Housing), who say that "government targets are not mandatory". Cllr White has previously written to the secretary of state to argue that the requirement for the number of homes to be built in the area should be lowered.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats argue that they are in favour of protecting the Green Belt.

Nigel Gardner, recently selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, told the Herts Advertiser that he "almost choked" on the food he was eating when he first read the Local Plan.

Herts Advertiser: Nigel Gardner is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted.Nigel Gardner is the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted. (Image: Nigel Gardner)

He continued: "They're filling in all the countryside ... I was really shocked.

"We have to protect the Green Belt. It's probably the fundamental reason I stood for this locally.

"I don't want to play party politics with it, it's too important to play party politics with. We all need to pull together and protect the greenbelt.

"We have to save this Green Belt, otherwise we're not going to be living in the place we all want to live in.

"There's been too much building already, and it means the countryside is a shadow of its former self.

"Everybody talks about us having an obligation to provide homes for our children, to live here as we lived here, but we also have an obligation to our children to leave them some countryside behind."

Victoria Collins said: “I’m very proud that the Liberal Democrats have firmly rejected the Conservatives’ top-down approach that has forced over 15,000 houses on our area and caused a housing crisis in this country, pitting communities against Whitehall and each other.

"It’s almost as if Michael Gove wants to make every planning decision himself.

"We’d also like to see local councils set binding affordable and social housing targets so we’re building the homes we actually need, as well as ensuring all developments have appropriate infrastructure.

“The Liberal Democrats believe local communities should have a stronger voice, not a Conservative minister in Whitehall enforcing the will of developers onto local communities without care for need, affordability or place.

"It’s time for a fair deal for Hertfordshire’s residents, and an end to the Conservatives’ broken promises and warm words.”

National targets were set to be imposed in the forthcoming Levelling Up Bill, but a rebellion by Conservative MPs led to a change of stance.

The government position is now that "housing targets remain, but are a starting point, with new flexibilities to reflect local circumstances".