Designs submitted for development on rare wildlife habitat in Harpenden

Westfield allotments site, Harpenden

Westfield allotments site, Harpenden - Credit: Archant

A habitat for rare wildlife in Harpenden is inching another step closer to being developed.

Westfield allotments site, Harpenden

Westfield allotments site, Harpenden - Credit: Archant

A planning application has been submitted to St Albans City and District Council for the design, layout and landscaping of 24 new homes on the 5895sqm former Westfield Allotments in Beeching Close.

Harpenden Town Council (HTC) received outline planning permission for the scheme in October 2018 on the condition that this separate application was submitted for the appearance of the new builds.

Campaigners have been contesting the project for years because the site is home to breeding birds, toads, frogs, slow-worms, grass snakes and Roman snails - or helix pomatia, which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

An HTC commissioned investigation in April to May 2016 and May 2017 found at least 66 snails living on the space.

Local campaigner Carol Hedges said: "It has wildlife on it. It has the highest count of these particular snails in the north of Herts and they are preparing somewhere else to put them - that's absolutely ridiculous because they are territorial.

"It is like taking you out of your house and dumping you somewhere else. It's disgraceful. Once all the insects and birds and flowers and snails are gone, they are gone."

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The space has not been used as allotments since 1999 and the new scheme includes 12 socially rented, two affordable rented, and ten shared ownership homes.

Harpenden Cllr Melanie Priggen said she sympathises with both sides, but stressed that the site has already received planning permission and been included in the Harpenden Neighbourhood Plan.

"Whether it should or shouldn't have been in there we can argue about, but the struggle is that it is going to be hard to stop any development on that site on that basis," she said.

"Some of the issues raised could potentially be mitigated by how the development is managed, such as access to the site.

"The thing is, what we really need in Harpenden is social housing, I feel very strongly about that.

"I genuinely care about both sides, it is a site of wilderness that is totally unused at the moment and that is really hard to lose but we need social housing as well."

She said money from the development could be used to better Harpenden and address community issues.

The land has been scrutinised for possible development for more than a decade and planning permission was initially sought by HTC for a scheme in 2005.

That was for 42 flats on the site, but it was refused by St Albans council at the time.

Another application to build 20 affordable homes on the land was rejected in 2010 because the access path crossed over part of a Sustrans cycle network.

Then in 2013, HTC had to abandon plans to construct an access road next to the site because of backlash against dumping excavated soil onto the habitat.

A Mencap scheme to build homes for people with learning disabilities was dashed in 2014 when the charity decided the space was too small to provide the necessary number of homes.

When Mencap pulled out, HTC reverted back to its original plan to build affordable housing.

The current project's outline planning permission was submitted by HTC, but the authority has since put the work out for tender and the project is now being progressed by Lea Valley Developments.

Harpenden mayor, Cllr Brian Ellis, said: "This application for reserved matters has been submitted on behalf of the housing association that we are working with to build the development.

"It is not a town council application."

St Albans council is due to make a decision on the site by October 10.

Lea Valley Homes is the development subsidiary of Aldwyck Housing Group, and a spokesperson said: "The development will provide much-needed affordable homes for local people in an area where house prices are high and where it's especially hard to get on the housing ladder."

On the Roman snail issue, they said: "We take our responsibilities to the environment seriously and sensitively and have undertaken an Ecology and Snail/Reptile Mitigation Strategy.

"As part of this, we're relocating the Roman snails to a suitable habitat that's been identified in Shillington."

View and comment on the application using reference 5/2019/1845.