St Albans Local Plan inspectors raise ‘serious’ concerns about housing document

St Albans planning portfolio holder, Cllr Jamie Day. Picture: Pete Stevens

St Albans planning portfolio holder, Cllr Jamie Day. Picture: Pete Stevens - Credit: Pete Stevens

Planning inspectors have raised “serious” concerns about the St Albans Local Plan.

Examining inspectors Elaine Worthington and Louise Crosby sent a letter to St Albans district council (SADC) highlighting problems with the housing document, which is due to be scrutinised in October.

They said SADC did not sufficiently justify some of its policies or explain how it chose vast amounts of Green Belt land for development.

About 15,000 new houses have been proposed to be built in the district before 2036, with 10 large settlements on protected sites.

The inspectors said SADC should follow a two stage approach when proposing "substantial Green Belt boundary alterations".

They advised: "Together these steps give a scale of unmet need which could only be met by Green Belt release and are necessary to determine whether the review of the Green Belt is justified in principle."

SADC had until 12pm on Tuesday, to respond to the letter, which advises that the authority may need to consult further and examination dates pushed back.

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Redbourn Parish Council chairman, Cllr David Mitchell, said he has been voicing these concerns since it was revealed that a lot of Green Belt is being sacrificed near the village.

He said: "I have been arguing on behalf of Redbourn Parish Council that they [SADC] haven't done this work, and they said they have, and we responded, 'well, where is the evidence to back it up?' When the inspectors themselves are saying that it needs a lot more work, that is very serious."

Last March, then-Housing Secretary Sajid Javid threatened to take over the St Albans Local Plan process if SADC did not submit a document by this March.

Cllr Mitchell believes the tight deadline forced SADC's hand: "They rushed to get it all done by March because they felt under pressure by government, and now it is a dog's dinner and Redbourn is the scapegoat for all the housing."

Portfolio holder for planning at SADC, Cllr Jamie Day, said he was expecting inspectors to ask questions: "We will be responding in detail to all the issues raised by the inspectors by July 31. I'm confident that we have answers to all of their questions.

"In particular, we can provide a full justification for selecting a number of broad locations for housing, commercial and infrastructure development."

The letter was discussed by SADC planning policy committee on Tuesday.

Spatial planning manager at SADC, Chris Briggs, said it is normal to be asked questions of the submitted document.

Cllr Malachy Pakenham said: "I have read the inspector's letter in detail and I find one or two issues flagged up in there, and I appreciate the officers are going to respond, to be slightly concerning.

"I am by no means an expert in this field and Mr Briggs says letters like this are not uncommon but if you look at some of the threads weaving through it I get a sense of unease."

Head of planning and building control at SADC, Tracy Harvey, said the reason for opting for large sites over smaller parcels was so new infrastructure could be secured.

At the meeting, there was also a clash between former planning portfolio holder Cllr Mary Maynard and her successor, Cllr Day.

She asked if the new Liberal Democrat administration intends to increase the number of affordable homes in the Local Plan and include that in the response to the inspector.

When Cllr Day said they are still working on the Corporate Plan, Cllr Maynard retorted that the Corporate Plan does not include affordable targets. Cllr Day said: "Sorry, the Corporate Plan we are working on within our group..."

Interrupting, Cllr Maynard said: "Chair, I am asking you, when you respond to the inspector, do you intend to change the targets for affordable housing in the Local Plan? It's quite a simple question. You said you would. Do you intend to? If so, what's it going to be?"

He replied: "As I said, we are still talking about it in the cabinet, so we haven't got an exact figure. I can't decide on my own. It's a cabinet decision. When we have that figure, obviously we will publish it."

Cllr Maynard addressed the room: "Can I point out to my colleagues that this is not actually a cabinet decision, it is a council decision."

The meeting chair said: "I am not going to give you a figure off the top of my head before we have discussed it in our cabinet, which we will then put forward to the council."

Cllr Maynard thanked Cllr Day for "illuminating the situation so clearly".