Why the future of St Albans’ Green Belt is at risk from development

The entrance to the proposed site of Sewell Park development

The entrance to the proposed site of Sewell Park development - Credit: Archant

A HIGH Court judgement triggered by the rejection of a major housing scheme on St Albans’ Green Belt will have major implications for council housing targets throughout the UK, a planning expert has warned.

Hunston Properties in St Albans has successfully challenged a planning inspector’s decision to dismiss its scheme to build Sewell Park, a development of 116 homes, new road access and a 72-bed care home to the rear of 112-156B Harpenden Road.

However the judgement handed down on September 5 at the High Court in Manchester by Judge Mark Pelling does not mean the green light has been given to the controversial development.

But Judge Pelling highlighted major shortcomings in St Albans district council’s (SADC) out-of-date housing target and the policy vacuum it suffered as a result of shelving its planning blueprint, the draft Strategic Local Plan (SLP).

As a result, the judge has quashed a planning inspector’s decision to refuse planning permission for Sewell Park because of the way the inspector and the council interpreted planning legislation.

Principal of DLA Town Planning David Lane, a planning expert and former SADC senior planning officer engaged by Hunston, said the judgement had major implications for councils throughout the UK.

He said the judge had accepted Hunston’s assertion that both SADC and the planning inspector were wrong to reject the scheme on the assumption that the appropriate housing target for St Albans was 360 homes a year.

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That figure was based on the East of England Plan – which was revoked by the government on January 3 this year, and replaced by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The council’s cabinet earlier this year adopted an interim annual housing target of 360 homes while it awaits the outcome of an independent review of Green Belt boundaries and potential housing locations.

Hunston argued that by adopting the 360 figure, as opposed to 688 per annum, as suggested in the Department for Communities and Local Government 2008 based projection figures, the inspector had misconstrued and misapplied parts of the NPPF.

The judge agreed that approach was “wrong in law”. The appeal will now go back to the planning inspectorate for reconsideration.

Mr Lane warned that other councils throughout the UK basing their housing figures on the revoked legislation risked a similar outcome in court.

Mark Carrington, a spokesman for Campaign by Locals Against Sewell Housing (CLASH), said the group was “dismayed” by the judgement.

He warned: “This decision further opens up a raft of new applications putting our Green Belt at imminent risk from inappropriate development.

“Developers are taking full advantage of the policy vacuum.”

Cllr for Batchwood Roma Mills said she hoped lessons had been learned “so no more taxpayers’ money is wasted on expensive barristers’ fees”.

She added: “Most districts in the country have local plans in place or are close to having them adopted. We are now in danger of losing control over planning, not just in the Green Belt but everywhere in the district.”

A council spokeswoman said SADC was considering the implications of the judgement with legal advisors.

She said the council had applied to the judge for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal but the request was refused.

The district council now has 21 days from September 5, the judgement date, to apply for leave to appeal directly to the Court of Appeal.

However a third public inquiry into Sewell Park, based on a reduced number of homes, starts on November 19.

Sewell Park - the story so far...

IN 2010 the Herts Advertiser broke the news that a former local head teacher had sold her property at 126 Harpenden Road, bordering former agricultural land, to developers.

That contentious sale potentially paved the way for the establishment of an access road to Sewell Park, the name given to a scheme proposed for a landlocked former agricultural plot on the city’s northern fringes.

The 5.1-hectare Green Belt site is sandwiched between Old Albanians’ headquarters at Woollams Playing Fields and St Albans Girls’ School (STAGS) on Sandridgebury Lane.

In 2011 scheme promoters Hunston Properties announced it was seeking permission to demolish 126 Harpenden Road, to create access to a major development of 116 homes, a 72-bed aged care home and facilities for STAGS - considered as a sweetener by some annoyed locals.

A new residents’ action group, Campaign by Locals Against Sewell Housing (CLASH), was formed to fight the scheme, with St Albans MP Anne Main also objecting, saying the Green Belt should not be developed.

That initial scheme was rejected by both St Albans district council and a planning inspector, as was a second planning application, on the grounds that there were no special circumstances to justify inappropriate development on the Green Belt.

A third scheme, for 71 homes, 14 flats, new accesses, two tennis courts and public open space, was turned down by the council in January this year.

That scheme, along with other recent planning applications, has brought the as yet unadopted Strategic Local Plan, which maps out future development, into sharper focus.

Back in 2010 the then emerging core strategy suggested a new local housing target of 250 homes a year. This was opposed to 360 new homes per annum set out in the recently revoked East of England Plan, and the figure used as an interim target by the current council until its new plan is adopted.

Developers have continually criticised the council for having too low a target for housing, and failing to bring about a swift conclusion to the long-awaited replacement local plan.

As far back as 2011 CLASH warned that the absence of a plan was opening the system up to “speculative development proposals”.