Hertsmere MP wants studios, business space and homes instead of rail freight site in St Albans

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden - Credit: Archant

The growing needs of busy film and TV studios in Borehamwood and Leavesden could be catered for alongside housing at the former Radlett Airfield, says a local politician.

Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden has urged St Albans district council to take a stronger line on the future shape of the 119-hectare site, currently at the heart of a loathed Strategic Rail Freight Interchange scheme.

The authority could ‘put in a supplementary planning notice’ ahead of the adoption of its draft Strategic Local Plan (SLP), and earmark the former airfield for a mixed development to stymie the building of the terminal, he suggested.

There has been a pause in the SLP process after a planning inspector suggested the blueprint for future development should be withdrawn because of a failure to cooperate with neighbouring councils over the location, and number of houses which should be built throughout the district.

However, the council has recently launched a legal challenge against the Secretary of State, as it has disputed the inspector’s conclusions, and is seeking a judicial review of his decision.

Mr Dowden suggested that the airfield’s owners, Herts county council, might be ‘willing’ to sell the land for an alternative use, which was of more benefit to the local community.

He said that as the district council would more than likely have to make alterations to the plan, which shows the site as having a Green Belt designation, it could seriously consider earmarking it for development - other than a rail freight terminal - and say there has been a ‘material change in circumstances’.

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The MP said that at present, however, house builders and businesses had been deterred from forwarding alternative plans to the mammoth rail depot, “because of the Green Belt status”.

With many offices being converted into homes in St Albans, he said the city centre was at risk of becoming a ‘hollow’ shell because residents left in the morning to carry out jobs outside of this area, including in London, and returned in the evening, which was not conducive to the daytime economy of local businesses.

Mr Dowden said that although the district council had previously said it was unable to alter the designation, for legal reasons, while the SLP was still effectively at draft stage, “they have been provided with the ideal opportunity to implement the change”.

He added: “We need more office space, particularly as we have Elstree Film Studios in Borehamwood and Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden, both nearby. You could have a hub, for post-production, creating good local jobs in this area.

“The rail freight depot scheme is very bad for this community. Instead, you could get something that could help cater for some of the housing needs.”

The politican said the council was ‘letting the people of St Albans down’ by not providing avenues for potential alternative develoment, and while he would “prefer nothing being built at the site, given the application has been approved [by Eric Pickles in 2014] we are past that point.

“The Green Belt there is going to go anyway. So we need to see what else can come forward. But at the moment, nothing else can come forward, apart from this monstrous rail terminal.”

Park Street councillor David Yates, who has been heavily involved in the drafting of the SLP, said: “It is all very well for Westminster to say St Albans should fix this, but it wasn’t a problem of our creation in the first place.”

He said that should the council remove the Green Belt designation of the site through its draft plan, it would leave itself wide open to legal challenges from local developers. They could potentially argue that their land should also be taken out of the Green Belt, as the Park Street land was rated as contributing considerably more to strategic gaps between settlements by independent consultants.

Also, housing on the site would exacerbate heavy traffic on the A414, Cllr Yates warned.