Campaigners mull legal action as government approves green belt development

An aerial view of the Harpenden Road site

An aerial view of the Harpenden Road site, where government has now rubber-stamped plans for 150 homes. - Credit: Google Earth

Government has signed off plans to bulldoze green belt land in St Albans, despite experts’ concerns.

Councillors voted last month to permit 150 new homes on 13 acres of protected land off of Harpenden Road.

But campaigners claim the council ignored objections from environmental experts - and they say housing minister Robert Jenrick has now ignored them as well.

Mr Jenrick had the power to block the development, but his underlings considered the case on his behalf and rubber-stamped it.

Objectors had lobbied Mr Jenrick to veto the application on environmental grounds.

But his officials said they did not consider the environmental issues, as that had been the council’s job.

Campaigners are now considering a judicial review.

The group, called CLASH (Campaign by Locals Against Sewell Housing), has fought repeated attempts to develop the land.

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Councillors were persuaded to reject schemes in 2012 and 2015, winning subsequent appeals over both cases.

But in a meeting on July 26, councillors gave in.

Campaigners fear this has set a precedent which will see neighbouring sites gradually picked off.

“Very special circumstances”

Government rules say green belt should only be developed in “very special circumstances” where the harm is “clearly outweighed by other circumstances”, planning officer Ruth Ambrose told councillors on July 26.

But government has also ordered St Albans Council to approve thousands of new homes, which cannot be delivered without substantial green belt development.

An agent for the developer told the meeting that St Albans’ housing supply was “bleak”.

“These numbers are stark and the shortage of new homes has real consequences for people,” he said.

Mrs Ambrose added that St Albans had recently lost an appeal after refusing 100 planned homes at Bullers Green Lane.

“We have to draw on the Bullers Green Lane decision, which was incredibly recent,” she said. “Very substantial weight was applied to the provision of housing, based on precisely the same housing need position as we find ourselves in here today.”

She added that the Harpenden Road applicants had made a “commitment” to a “net gain in diversity”, which had to “count as a benefit”.

Ruth Ambrose

Planning officer Ruth Ambrose said a recent decision over Bullers Green Lane suggested government now considered hitting housing targets to be sufficient justification for bulldozing green belt. - Credit: St Albans Council

Harm

The developers’ agent told the meeting there would be a “little green belt harm”, but it was “clearly outweighed by the benefits of the scheme”, including the commitment to a gain in biodiversity.

But when questioned by councillors, Mrs Ambrose confirmed there was “no requirement” for that gain to actually be delivered on the site – or even in Hertfordshire.

“Obviously officers would do all they could, working with Hertfordshire Ecology, to ensure that we could, if possible, get that gain within the county, at least,” she said. “But we cannot guarantee it.”

The “net gain” could also be met “by way of a financial contribution”, she added.

Experts say the site itself will suffer environmental damage, which is a material planning reason to block the plans.

CLASH report author Jed Griffiths

Planning expert Jed Griffiths co-authored a report raising environmental concerns, which councillors failed to address in their decision-making. - Credit: St Albans Council

Experts

The Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust objected to the development, as did the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

CLASH penned a report arguing that ecological surveys undertaken on behalf of the developers were insufficient and contained inaccurate information.

One of its authors was Jed Griffiths, a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, who trains councillors on how to properly determine planning applications.

The report said each of the developer’s ecological surveys was based on a single day’s inspection, whereas “a comprehensive, reliable survey must visit across a year in all seasons."

They said there was therefore insufficient evidence of the current biodiversity and no way to accurately ensure a net gain.

The Wildlife Trust agreed, saying the developer’s surveys were “not sufficient”, so any promised environmental gains were “not measurable”.

But none of these concerns raised by CLASH, the Wildlife Trust or CPRE were even mentioned by councillors as they made their decision on July 26.

Robert Jenrick leaving Downing Street

Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, had the power to veto the Harpenden Road - but delegated it to underlings, who approved it. - Credit: Aaron Chown/PA Archive/PA Images

“We believe this application was not considered properly or fully,” CLASH said, adding that it was “disappointed" by Mr Jenrick's failure to intervene.

The group has already filed two formal complaints with St Albans Council and is considering High Court action.

“CLASH are continuing to take guidance and advice and will take action within the legal parameters of this case,” it said.

For more, read:

Councillor faces standards probe over alleged comment at planning meeting

150 homes plan for green belt land in north St Albans is approved

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