St Albans District Council's all-important Local Plan, redrafted following its earlier rejection through the council's ‘failure to co-operate' with adjacent authorities, notably Dacorum to the west, was the focus of the Harpenden Society's early October public meeting.
Councillor Mary Maynard, SADC's portfolio holder for planning, was the main speaker at the meeting, held in Rothamsted's Fowden Hall. Her presentation was preceded by a brief update on Harpenden Town Council's Neighbourhood Plan from its steering group chairman Geoff Newman. He said the referendum asking for NP local approval was due in late January 2019, in adequate time for its recommendations to be embodied in SADC's finalised LP. Key among those recommendations was the need to maintain Harpenden's character as a town.
Cllr Maynard said the revised LP, drafted following the latest ‘Have your say!' public consultation process that yielded 2413 responses (from a district population of about 140,000), had been agreed at a council meeting on July 11. It was now important to move forward in getting it approved to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State by next March.
Another failure to do so, said Cllr Maynard, could mean future planning policy in the district being taken away from SADC and handed to either central government or even to another local authority, either of which would lack district awareness. She made no reference however to the alleged ongoing dispute with Dacorum, reported in the September 27 Herts Advertiser, over the site allocation for 5000 homes on SADC's western boundary which, if not resolved, could, the newspaper report asserted, lead to just such a second LP rejection.
But she added that every two months a meeting was now being held with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (at the time of writing James Brokenshire), to ensure that LP progress was ‘on track', with particular scrutiny on new home numbers.
The critical objective, being demanded by ‘government methodology', is for 913 new homes a year to be built in St Albans District, through the period covered by the plan, up to 2036 - that is almost 15,000 in all. Continuing controversy surrounds the sites designated for housing development. The formal ‘call for sites' consultation brought 150 submissions. But many were rejected for reasons not made entirely clear, notably the Lawes Trust site at Redbourn which was said to potentially accommodate as many as 1000 new dwellings.
Accordingly, the number of key sites chosen for major housing development has been whittled down to eight, two of them in Harpenden: between Bloomfield Road and Cooters End Lane in the north-west and beyond Batford council estate in the north-east. Those two sites - currently designated Green Belt land - are deemed capable of accommodating, respectively, 580 and 760 homes.
In accordance with declared government policy, plans for new major housing projects submitted by developers would be required to include a percentage of ‘affordable' housing, said Cllr Maynard. Plans for small to medium-sized (maximum three-bedroom) houses and flats giving first-time buyers a chance to purchase, would be favoured. It was a matter of regret, she said, that nowadays essential - typically public sector - workers in Harpenden, including teachers for example, could not live in the town, because of prohibitive housing costs.
In line with that policy, development on the critical 36 acre north-west Harpenden site, alongside the A1081, would be required to deliver 580 new homes at a density of over 16 dwellings per acre. Its practical fulfillment on the available acreage has been questioned, not least by Harpenden Green Belt Association planning advisors, especially given the LP's declared requirement for supporting infrastructure, including a primary school occupying 6.2 acres, and an over-50s care home plus ‘recreational and public open space'.
Aside from the ‘capacity' of the site, the LP sets out further demanding requirements, such as ‘new walking or cycling facilities to promote car-free access to Harpenden town centre', which some attendees at the meeting found difficult to envisage.
Similar exacting conditions are specified for the larger (47 acre) NE Harpenden site nominated in the LP, adjoining Batford council estate, where 760 new dwellings are proposed at a similar density to the NW Harpenden site and again with a primary school included. However it is described as a ‘masterplanned development led by the Council, in collaboration with local communities, landowners and other stakeholders'.
A comprehensive timetable for implementation of the LP was included in Cllr Maynard's presentation. Headed ‘Housing Trajectory', it listed the favoured sites and the numbers of dwellings scheduled to be built. The timetable is based on an assumption that the LP will be finalised and approved ready for implementation in 2020, with projections through to 2036.
It is clear however from scrutiny of the data in the timetable that many of the numbers are more ‘statistically theoretical' than realistic. Regarding the NW Harpenden site, for example, the trajectory data indicate that development is not due to start until 2022/23 and then for an average of 75 dwellings to be completed each year through to 2028/29, followed by a further 55 a year later. On the Batford site, the timetable indicates an even later start to development: 2026/27, with development continuing through to the LP's final year, 2036.
Relationships between SADC and potential major housing developers would be different in the future under the terms of the LP, asserted Cllr Maynard. Developers would effectively be told what to build, with stricter conditions imposed, notably in the provision of schools, parks, care homes and so on.
‘There will be no ifs or buts', she declared, adding that ‘written commitments would be demanded', on which would depend the granting of planning permission. Past experience suggests however that some hard negotiating can be expected in future planning applications if developers of major sites are to meet SADC's tough LP conditions while maintaining acceptable profitability.