Council in crisis after St Albans Local Plan thrown out by planning inspectors

What next for St Albans Local Plan?

What next for St Albans Local Plan? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A damning indictment of St Albans Local Plan has thrown future developments within the district into doubt.

Government planning inspectors have told SADC to either withdraw the plan from examination or they will recommend it is not adopted.

They said this is because of a failure to cooperate with neighbouring local authorities over strategic matters and whether they could accommodate some of the district’s housing target of 14,608 new homes.

Progress of the Local Plan (LP), a blueprint for development within the district for the years to 2036, was halted earlier this year.

In a bid to allay inspectors’ concerns, SADC dropped its opposition to the Radlett strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI), which it had earmarked for a garden village of 2,000 homes, and said there was no capacity for any other council to help them meet their housing target, a statement supported by Dacorum Borough, Hertsmere, Watford, Three Rivers and Welwyn Hatfield district councils as well as Herts county council.

The Local Plan was approved by the council in 2018 after extensive consultation with residents, community groups, businesses and neighbouring local authorities.

It was submitted for examination last year, but this was halted when the inspectors raised their concerns about its soundness and legal compliance.

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But in a letter to SADC this week, planning inspectors Louise Crosby and Elaine Worthington said it was clear that the council had not met the Duty to Cooperate with other local authorities, and this failure could not be remedied through the examination process.

They wrote: “This is clearly a very unfortunate situation and we appreciate that it will be deeply disappointing to the council and other examination participants.

“However, we wish to emphasise that we have not reached these conclusions lightly and have, throughout, sought to be as pragmatic as is possible within the constraints set by legislation.”

The matter also hinges on specific concerns about the strategic importance of SRFI proposals for a site to the south of the district.

In 2014, the then-Secretary of State Eric Pickles gave outline planning permission for a SRFI at the site near Park Street. This site is the location of one of the areas that the council has identified for housing in the draft Local Plan.

In their latest letter the inspectors say that “even if the council knew that the SRFI could not be accommodated in another local authority area, it should have... been discussed... as a strategic matter and some acknowledgement made that it needed to be accommodated. Whilst it may not have been possible for other local authorities to accommodate the SRFI, they may have been able to assist with accommodating some of St Albans’ housing need.”

The inspectors make the point that there is “nothing in legislation or guidance which requires there to be a realistic potential to achieve a positive outcome (in Duty-to-Cooperate discussions)”, and that “... the duty is not a duty to agree and discussions should be active and ongoing even when they seem to have ‘hit the buffers’”.

Furthermore, the inspectors say that they find it “clear that the council had no intention of allocating the Radlett site for a SRFI in the plan and that in allocating the site for housing, to help meet its housing need, it knew that would prevent the creation of the regionally and nationally important SRFI”.

Cllr Jamie Day, portfolio holder for planning said: “The council will now need to consider the detailed points made by the Inspectors in their latest letter and determine what action to take. It is little wonder that the government’s recent Planning White Paper has proposed to abolish the Duty to Cooperate requirements given the complexities involved. It is extremely important that we progress our Local Plan as soon as possible so we can manage the district’s growth, and provide much needed housing for local people, in a sustainable and positive way, as well as acknowledge the increasingly pressing issues raised by the climate emergency.”

The matter will first be considered by the council’s planning policy committee next Tuesday September 8.