St Albans Local Plan withdrawal bid fails due to Tory boycott

Council leader Cllr Chris White. Photo: Hannah Couzens

Council leader Cllr Chris White. Photo: Hannah Couzens - Credit: Archant

A bid to officially withdraw the district’s controversial Local Plan has been thwarted after Tory councillors boycotted a decision-making committee.

Cllr Mary Maynard.

Cllr Mary Maynard. - Credit: Archant

St Albans district council (SADC) had been told to either withdraw the plan from examination or government planning inspectors would recommend it was not adopted.

They claimed there had been a failure to cooperate with neighbouring local authorities over strategic matters and questioned whether the council could accommodate some of the district’s target of 14,608 new homes as it had included the Radlett rail freight site for potential housing.

Progress of the Local Plan, a blueprint for development within the district for the years to 2036, was halted earlier this year. The current adopted plan dates back to the 1994 District Local Plan Review, making it the oldest Local Plan in the country.

Duty to co-operate issues were the downfall of the previous Strategic Local Plan, which was thrown out of the High Court in 2017 after councils surrounding the St Albans boundary lodged complaints about a lack of consultation.

This week SADC’s planning policy committee was due to vote on formerly withdrawing the current plan, rather than choose the expensive and risky option of a judicial review.

But Conservative members failed to attend the meeting, meaning it did not achieve quorum and could not proceed.

Most Read

Leader of the Conservative group on SADC, Cllr Mary Maynard, explained: “The committee is increasingly seen as a waste of everyone’s time. Both Labour and the Independent members have gone on the record saying this.

“Moreover, the Conservative members, who have been involved in planning policy for some time, are concerned about the lack of collaboration and the increasing politicisation of the Committee by the Liberal Democrat members. Irrelevant topics are being raised and discussed, whilst the elephant in the room - namely what are we going to do next about the Local Plan - is off the agenda.”

Planning portfolio holder Cllr Jamie Day said: “There will be no delay on the withdrawal of the previous administration’s expensively failed Local Plan – it is on the agenda for November’s Cabinet following agreement at the October PPC which the Tory members all attended.

“The boycott was a diversionary tactic to avoid the spotlight on the failed Local Plan – the questionable decision to ignore the national Tory government’s imposition of a Strategic Rail Freight terminal on the site.”

The ongoing delays to the Local Plan process means it could be four years before any major development receives outline planning, and a further two years before anything is built.

Council leader Chris White believes the withdrawal of the plan would provide a massive opportunity to re-examine what the district wants from its housing.

“There are quite a lot of things the current plan does not recognise, such as climate change and electric vehicle charging points, and we would be pushing sustainability very aggressively in any future developments.”

He said the rejected plan largely focused on sites of 500 houses or more, but any replacement would embrace smaller sites which were less obtrusive on the Green Belt.

On the subject of the strategic rail freight depot which has planning permission for the former Radlett Airfield, he remained defiant that the scheme should still be opposed, even though it was unlikely to feature in any future Local Plan as a Garden Village, which was the original intention.

“Is it still relevant given Brexit and Freeports [zones designated by the government as areas with little to no tax in order to encourage economic activity]? We’re not giving up fighting against it, and the government might now consider it an outdated idea. It is a Green Belt site, but is no longer an option for housing.”

He admitted planning by appeal was a worry, and hoped the impetus would be on developers to prove very special conditions for building on any Green Belt sites.

Cllr Maynard, said in response: “The next steps on the Local Plan are going to be heavily influenced by the Government’s White Paper on Planning.

“This changes the way in which Local Plans are developed, simplifying the approach and reducing the timescales involved significantly. For instance, they have removed the need to obtain Duty to Cooperate. It also seems to have given more protection to the Green Belt and asks for more focus on building densely in existing residential areas.

“The Garden Village site will have to be considered in the Local Plan if the county council as the owners of the land, brings it forward. If they don’t consider it, there could be legal action. They will need a very sound legal case to remove it. Another Green Belt review will need to be considered in the light of the White Paper and the new approach to Local Plans.”