Are planners stonewalling over secret St Albans housing meetings?
- Credit: Archant
Planning bosses in St Albans have defied a ruling to divulge details of discussions they held with developers behind closed doors on a major housing scheme in St Albans.
A row has broken out between a local campaigning group pushing for minutes of meetings held prior to Oaklands and Taylor Wimpey applying to build 348 homes at the Smallford campus, off Sandpit Lane, and St Albans district council which is digging its heels in over the request.
The authority has snubbed a ruling by the Information Commissioner to disclose withheld information, angering Marshalswick North Residents Association (MNRA).
Members of the campaign group, which has been fighting against Oaklands’ plans to build hundreds of homes on the Green Belt, sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the council in June last year.
They were seeking copies of all minutes of the meetings, both formal and informal, between Taylor Wimpey and the council’s planning bosses from January 1, 2012, to June 13, 2013.
But the authority refused to do so, saying that it would breach commercial confidentiality.
The group persisted, saying that meetings occured before a draft Strategic Local Plan, the district’s planning blueprint, which earmarked Oaklands for a major development, was put before the council in late 2012.
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Campaigners maintain there was no proper consultation with locals prior to publication of the plan – which was later withdrawn and is currently being redrafted following independent reviews on housing need and Green Belt boundaries.
They told the council: “We believe the public interest is not being served by a continued lack of transparency and public accountability in the planning process. We have not asked for the disclosure of sensitive financial information in our request.”
Planning bosses were told by the group that public interest “outweighed” commercial confidentiality concerns.
Campaigners added that it appeared the planning process was “site-led” as discussions had been held between developers and the council prior to publication of the local plan.
They went on: “Oaklands College is a not-for-profit corporation and no other developer is involved therefore we cannot see why information which should be publicly available is being withheld.”
The council then partially backed down, apologising to the group for its handling of the matter.
Following an internal review it released about 40 documents from a schedule of about 80 pieces of information. However those were mainly emails about setting up meetings between the developers and planning officers.
The council refused to release the remainder, explaining the information was supplied in confidence to allow the developers to seek advice.
Furthermore, “there is a fee charged for these private meetings”.
The council told the association it did not have consent from Taylor Wimpey to divulge information supplied in “private email exchanges and private meetings”.
To do so might, “deter developers from seeking advice”.
The council has rejected the Information Commissioner’s order to release minutes of those meetings and the matter will now go to a tribunal.