No retreat, no surrender from St Albans council leader over Strategic Local plan

Left to right contract manager for TSP David Whitlow, SPEN HILL Developments Ltd Mark Witham, Cllr T

Left to right contract manager for TSP David Whitlow, SPEN HILL Developments Ltd Mark Witham, Cllr Teresa Heritage and Cllr Julian Daly. - Credit: Archant

A legal challenge has been launched after a planning inspector put a stop to St Albans’ future expansion plans, putting at risk the local council’s ability to manage major schemes.

Following two public consultations, St Albans council asked the government to approve its draft Strategic Local Plan (SLP), to replace its out-of-date predecessor, dating back to 1994.

But in November last year, planning inspector David Hogger told the authority it had failed to meet its duty to cooperate with neighbouring councils while drawing up its new planning blueprint.

Setting out two likely scenarios, Mr Hogger warned he would have to recommend non-adoption of the plan, or the council “may choose to withdraw the SLP”.

However the inspector’s stance and interpretation of the draft plan has riled St Albans council, which has since disputed his conclusions. After taking external legal advice, it started proceedings last Thursday (5) against the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to quash the inspector’s decision. St Albans council also wants the defendant to pay its costs.

Cllr Julian Daly, the council’s leader, said the authority “believes the inspector’s conclusion that we did not meet the duty to cooperate is flawed. We are therefore seeking a judicial review of the decision and look forward to having our case heard.”

The SLP sets out overarching policies on major development throughout the district, including construction of 4,000 homes in the Green Belt, until 2031, and identifies land for new infrastructure, commerce, industry, residential and social amenities.

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In its application to the High Court for permission to seek a Judicial Review of the planning inspector’s decision, the council warns that Mr Hogger’s decision, which would effectively result in the withdrawal of the SLP, “will have direct consequences on the direction of development within the district.”

The council asserts that, “it is of critical importance the future of the plan is resolved as soon as possible.

“A substantial delay in the hearing of the claim is likely to prejudice the council’s ability to direct development within its area strategically, as planning applications are likely to come before it within the near future, without the benefit of an adopted plan.

“A delay in the adoption of the plan will also affect developers’ decisions as to when and if to bring forward development.”

One such plan potentially affected by this stumbling block is the new secondary school proposed for Green Belt land in Harpenden.

Criticism has been levelled at neighbouring councils who have effectively thwarted the plan’s adoption by complaining about St Albans’ lack of cooperation with them over the siting of their own future housing.

In its statement of facts, the council points the finger of blame at such counterparts, including Dacorum, Hertsmere and Watford councils, over differences in opinion over the local housing market.

While St Albans council has concluded that this district is principally its own housing area, to choose where major residential schemes should be placed in future, neighbouring authorities have argued that they, too, want to expand their residential schemes, across boundaries, into the district’s Green Belt.

The local council argues that, since the parties had reached the stage where they had agreed to disagree on what comprised the housing market area, “there was no further discussion which could fruitfully be had”.

St Albans is challenging the inspector’s ‘unlawful decision’ on five grounds, including his interpretation of part of the government’s planning framework, and that he made conclusions on the soundness of the SLP which were wrong.

A spokesman for Harpenden Green Belt Association said: “Very few - if any - informed observers, including developers, think it is ‘sound’.”

Cllr David Mitchell, chairman of Redbourn parish council, said the council was ‘clutching at straws’ by launching the legal challenge.

He added: “I’m very surprised that common sense has not prevailed and they haven’t started the plan afresh.”

A Freedom of Information request in regards to the cost of preparing the plan has revealed that the wider budget spend incorporating the SLP and related material, from April 1, 2011 to date is about £490,000.

• A judge will consider the council’s application in the next few weeks.