Warning that St Albans council may lose plans power

St Albans City and District Council

St Albans City and District Council - Credit: Archant

DEVELOPERS could gain control of planning in the district because of the lack of a Strategic Local Plan (SLP) according to a third-party review of the service.

The stark warning has come from representatives and experts from other councils and local government bodies who were asked to carry out a peer review by St Albans council into ways of developing the planning service and what opportunities there were for improvement and change.

The main concern raised by the review was the lack of an SLP which the panel believes presents “a major strategic risk to the council”.

Panel members have warned that with no up-to-date local policy framework to inform decision-making on development, the door is open to developers who might wish to test the council by submitting proposals for development in the Green Belt and then going to appeal if unsuccessful.

That is a particular risk in an area where high land values are combined with an acknowledged demand and need for housing.

The report warns: “A successful appeal could open the door for other developers with the consequence of development by appeal and the council losing control where development takes place.”

The panel urges the council to make the adoption of the SLP its number one priority using a project management approach with a clear timetable which would need to include community-wide engagement as, “a continuous thread”.

Most Read

The pre-submission draft of the SLP went to council for approval last November but following the receipt of a petition about the development of land in the Green Belt at Oaklands Smallford campus, it was set aside and the council agreed to conduct a Green Belt review and housing needs study which will push back the production of the SLP to 2015.

Political change

The panel admits that making difficult decisions on development that affect local areas is not straightforward in St Albans for several reasons, including the current minority administration and the prospect of political change with one-third of the council up for election most years.

It concedes that the political situation could make longer-term planning difficult and believes there is a need for the council to gain cross-group consensus for the big strategic issues such as the SLP.

Also of concern was the number of planning appeals which the council has lost and the shortfall in the five-year housing land supply figure which is based on 360 new homes annually in the district compared with the current Office of National Statistics figure of 688.

The panel points out that St Albans has some of the highest land values in England and that, combined with the lack of an up-to-date spatial vision to guide future housing development and growth, could encourage developers to test policy and gain development benefit by appeal.

The report warns: “It needs only one major appeal to succeed to encourage others to test.”

St Albans is the busiest district-based planning authority in the country and refuses 28 per cent of applications, compared with 15 per cent from other authorities but often wins costs on appeal.

On a positive note, the panel found that recent planning performance had improved and staff were highly motivated to deliver a good service – many working long hours and giving up their entitlement to time off in lieu.

But the improved performance needed to be balanced against the loss of quality outcomes, the repeat handling of applications at no charge and the high number of costly appeals.

The panel also expressed surprise that a design code was being developed by local body Look! St Albans rather than by the council which should have, ‘a key leadership role to play on this’.

Leader of the council, Julian Daly, who took over the planning portfolio earlier this year, said: “We need to ensure that our planning service is fit for the future.

“We will use their [the panel’s] observations and recommendations to help us identify actions we can take to develop our planning service.”