'Out of touch' government demands more houses in St Albans

St Albans council leader Chris White

St Albans council leader Chris White (left) has accused government of being 'out of touch', after it curbed the council's planning powers. - Credit: St Albans Council / Getty Images

The leader of St Albans Council has accused government of being “out of touch”, after it restricted councillors’ planning powers as a punishment for not building enough houses.

Chris White said there should be “local outcry” over the intervention, which make it harder for councillors to reject planning applications for housing.

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper said the government was trying to “ram through the wrong kind of housing in the wrong places, and doesn’t give two jots about destroying the green belt or overriding the wishes of local people in the process.”

Why has this happened?

The government has ordered 14,608 new homes to be built in St Albans by 2036 and sets annual house-building targets to check the council’s progress.

In January, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) clipped the wings of 52 councils which had not delivered at least 75 per cent of their three-year house-building targets.

Between 2017/18 and 2019/20, the government says 2,372 new homes should have been built.

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But only 1,493 – or 63 per cent – were delivered.

As a “consequence”, St Albans must now consider planning applications under a “presumption in favour of sustainable development" - the second time in three years that it has been hit with this sanction.

It means councillors must now give more weight to national housing needs than local considerations.

The MHCLG said the council “should approve applications for housing unless there are clear reasons not to”.

What are the consequences? 

Last year, government rejected the council’s Local Plan, which sets out where it plans to deliver the homes ordered by government.

“The inspector alleged that we weren’t talking to our neighbouring councils, which was really tedious,” said Cllr White. “We are now having to start again.”

In the meantime, St Albans continues to face annual house-building targets - and must now determine applications under the “presumption in favour”.

Mrs Cooper said government was “giving developers a field day”.

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper

St Albans MP Daisy Cooper said the government intervention would ram through the wrong type of housing in the wrong places. - Credit: Daisy Cooper

“Local people’s say is diminished,” said Cllr White. “And it’s only local people and their elected representatives who know what’s needed.”

He compared the intervention to another government planning policy called “permitted development”, which came into force in 2015.

It entitled developers to turn some office blocks into flats without council permission.

“Now we’ve got whole swathes of office blocks which have been converted into residential accommodation of varying quality,” he lamented.

“The net result is that the jobs are gone. We are now trying to make sure the offices lost are replaced. Otherwise you have lots of people getting into cars and driving from one settlement to another to work.”

Rewarding failure?

Tracy Harvey, head of planning and building control at St Albans Council, said the district was 81 per cent green belt.

Development sites “are limited”, she said, and “St Albans has struggled to meet the government’s Housing Delivery Test”.

But another cause, said Cllr White, was developers gaining planning permission for housing and then failing to deliver it.

St Albans council leader Chris White

St Albans council leader Chris White said government was 'imagining' problems with local councils instead of confronting developers who land bank when they should be building. - Credit: St Albans Council

"If all the planning permission granted had been built, then we wouldn’t be in the position that we are,” he said.

“If Whitehall could just stop imagining that the problem is different from what it actually is, then we might actually be able to get somewhere.

“The fact that they are punishing the councils, when in fact it is the developers hanging onto land in so many parts of the country, just shows how out of touch the government is with what’s actually going on.”

His comments echoed a 2019 report by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which warned that the rules provided “a strong disincentive to housing developers to deliver”.

It said that if developers gain planning permission and then fail to build, the local authority has its powers curbed, in turn enabling those developers to gain approval for projects which might previously have been blocked.

“This rewards the developer for failing to develop and penalises the local authorities,” the report said.

The MHCLG said the test "helps ensure local housing need is being delivered, and offers greater transparency about the level of housing delivery in an area.”

It said it was “encouraging [councils] to seek support where they are facing challenges with housing delivery.”