St Albans Council snubs rail freight site homes bid

There have been anti-rail freight demonstrations over the years

There have been anti-rail freight demonstrations over the years - Credit: Archant

A major hurdle has been placed in front of developers vying to turn a former airfield into thousands of homes after St Albans council vowed to protect the Green Belt land from urban expansion.

The proposed rail freight site in Green Belt land, Park Street

The proposed rail freight site in Green Belt land, Park Street - Credit: Archant

At a meeting on Tuesday (12), councillors agreed that the former Radlett aerodrome would not be turned into housing under their watch - despite pressure from hopeful developers offering an alternative to the hated rail freight terminal scheme.

While the likes of Taylor Wimpey North Thames and Harrow Estates are champing at the bit to build about 2,000 homes on the site in Park Street, the district council has blocked such a move through its draft Strategic Local Plan (SLP) which proposes retaining the site as Green Belt.

Both developers have recently registered their interest with Herts county council for residential-based mixed uses in a joint venture with that authority, as a possible alternative to Helioslough’s contentious Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) scheme approved for the former airfield in Park Street.

Herts county council, as a major landowner of the Park Street site, has to decide whether or not to sell it to Helioslough should they make a financial offer. In the meantime it has asked for new expressions of interest which the two building firms have responded to.

But, on Tuesday, the district council’s planning policy committee confirmed that the site would not be taken out of the Green Belt.

At the meeting, councillors took a key step forward with the SLP by agreeing that it would shortly be presented to a senior planning inspector for examination – a move which now has to be rubber-stamped by cabinet.

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The plan provides overarching policies and principles for what can be built, and where, over the next two decades.

Chairman of Colney Heath parish council, Cllr Peter Cook, asked the committee whether, should the rail freight interchange site “become available for housing, how this would affect other Green Belt sites” earmarked for future strategic residential development, including at Oaklands College, in Redbourn parish and Harpenden.

Spatial planning manager Chris Briggs replied: “The only way that the site can become available for housing is through the local plan process of this council, or a planning application or appeal.

“The site remains in the Green Belt.”

Chris said that as the site was not identified by consultants as a potential strategic housing area in their Green Belt review, it was not one of four sites earmarked for 4,000 homes in the draft planning blueprint.

Permission was granted for the rail freight interchange by the Secretary of State – but it was given on the basis of national need for that specific facility and lack of alternative sites, which created “very special circumstances”.

Chris said: “While any potential future planning application would be treated on its merits in the same way as anywhere else, clearly the same national justification could not apply. Therefore, at this point in time, it is unknown how realistically the site could become available for housing.”

Cllr Brian Gibbard said he was pleased to see the council had received external legal advice concluding that “there is a reasonable prospect of the plan being found sound” by a planning inspector.

There was also discussion over whether Brexit would impact upon anticipated growth in the district, given that the council was told last year that St Albans’ population would be boosted by over 27,000 people within the next two decades – 1,400 more than anticipated in previous projections.

After the meeting, committee chairman Cllr Julian Daly and vice-chairman Cllr David Yates told the Herts Advertiser that while there was “uncertainty” whether the vote would slow down migration to this area, the inspector would probably scrutinise “what is in front of them” rather than potential changes brought on by Brexit.

The draft plan is expected to be nodded through by cabinet and submitted to the Secretary of State by the end of this month or early August.