St Albans Local Plan receives severe criticism from government inspectors

The proposed site of the Radlett rail freight depot

The proposed site of the Radlett rail freight depot - Credit: Archant

The future of St Albans’ draft Local Plan has been thrown into uncertainty after government planning inspectors took three months to reveal details of their concerns.

Key issues in the plan, a blueprint for development in the district from 2020 to 2036, include a lack of constructive engagement with neighbouring authorities over the Radlett rail freight depot and development of the district’s Green Belt.

Inspectors first wrote to the council in January to say they had “serious concerns in terms of legal compliance and soundness” of the draft plan, following initial hearing sessions earlier that month.

They finally provided further details in a letter dated April 14, with six main areas of concern.

Prominently is the failure of St Albans council to “engage constructively and actively” with neighbouring authorities over their proposal for the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI).

They said the council should have done more in seeking that neighbouring authorities accommodate either the SRFI or the housing planned for the site.

Another concern highlighted relates to the Green Belt. In 2017 and 2018 the council previously received warnings in 2017 and 2018 that it would face government intervention if it failed to deliver its Local Plan in a timely manner, leading to the latest of its three main Green Belt studies being completed swiftly as a result.

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The inspectors questioned whether adequate evidence has been provided to support the council’s contention that exceptional circumstances exist to alter the boundaries of the district’s Green Belt.

The inspectors also said that the draft plan has not been prepared in accordance with the council’s statement of community involvement.

While most of these matters would usually be dealt with during the Local Plan examination process, the SRFI matter is more complex.

Councillor Jamie Day, portfolio holder for planning at St Albans council, said: “It’s extremely important that the council progresses this Local Plan so that it is able to manage the district’s growth in a sustainable and positive way.

We are keen to deliver much needed housing in sustainable locations, but our efforts to do so are curtailed somewhat by the complexities involved.

“The SRFI is a central feature in the feedback received from the inspectors. The council is in the unique position of having a government-permitted strategic rail freight terminal site actively promoted by the landowner for alternative housing use.

“Over recent years, the council has made improved efforts to work with its neighbouring councils and Herts County Council to demonstrate its commitment to cooperating with our neighbouring authorities, so it’s disappointing to be called out by the inspectors on that point.

“We will be responding to the inspector’s letter to address the concerns raised. We had already engaged the Local Government Association to review the way that our Planning Department works and benchmark it against other local authorities to strengthen it for the future. But this review has been unavoidably delayed by the ongoing coronavirus control measures.”

Labour group spokesperson Cllr Malachy Pakenham said: “The rail freight site was always going to be difficult to incorporate into the Local Plan as the Park Street Garden Village.”

Councillor Richard Curthoys, Conservative group spokesperson on the planning policy committee, said: “We are disappointed at the planning inspectors’ letter. It’s clear that the many iterations of the duty to cooperate meetings between 2017 and 2019 have not been recognised.

“Furthermore, the inspectors’ statement that “a lack of objections is not an indication that duty to co-operate has been complied with” is particularly confusing.”

Independent Park Street councillor David Yates added: “The inspectors’ letter identifies many of the dubious justifications that were attempted for the nonsensical ‘Park Street Garden Village’. One has to wonder whether things would have been different if the promoter of the site had not been Hertfordshire County Council and local political parties had not been striving to outdo one another at thwarting the SRFI permission with a housing development.”

David Lane of local agency DLA Town Planning said: “This is disappointing news. I appreciate the council has a difficult job on its hands in producing a Local Plan but it is hugely frustrating that the process has been delayed again. The ongoing uncertainty benefits nobody and will only delay the delivery of much-needed new homes.”

Timothy Beecroft, chair of Verulam Residents’ Association, added: “Residents associations throughout St Albans are deeply concerned about the continued uncertainty that the failure to get an agreed Local Plan will bring.

“We would strongly urge everybody concerned to do everything they can to ensure that decisions about the way that developments St Albans are assessed are taken by groups who truly represent the views of the local community.”