Harpenden's Neighbourhood Plan came under the spotlight at the Harpenden Society's March public meeting. Town Clerk Carl Cheevers said the NP gave residents the opportunity to ‘get involved', by completing the questionnaire circulated by the Town Council to 13,500 households in the town and attending one of the associated drop-in sessions.
He explained that the concept of the NP had grown out of the government's 2011 Localism Act, designed to give people a greater ‘say' in the way their immediate environment developed over the next 15 years: where homes, shops and offices should be built, as well as the appearance of new developments and related infrastructure.
It was important to realise however that although it was not mandatory - under Localism legislation - for Harpenden to formulate a Neighbourhood Plan, it was, in Carl's words, ‘too good an opportunity to miss'. He cautioned however that the NP had to ‘align' with St Albans District Council's Strategic Local Plan.
Nevertheless the NP focus should, he said, be on ‘what we can do' rather than on what ‘we cannot do'. On that basis, the Town Council was moving ahead, commissioning a group of eleven consultants charged, in a seven-stage approach, with defining the NP's ‘vision and objectives' by a January 18 2018 target date.
Their key role would be to ‘test the options' submitted through the NP questionnaire (to which there had been some 1,500 responses at the end of March) and at a series of public drop-in sessions, leading to a residents' referendum mid-way through next year.
The NP deliberations would, said Carl, be undertaken by working groups under specified headings: housing; transport and movement; employment and retail; social infrastructure (including schools) and community facilities; and environmental sustainability and design.
The Town Clerk concluded his presentation by urging members of the Harpenden Society to encourage their friends and neighbours in the town ‘to have their say' in helping to shape the way the town will develop in the coming years.
Opening what proved to be a lively question and answer session following Carl Cheevers' presentation, town and county councillor David Williams suggested the NP could call for a new primary school in the town to accompany the numerous new housing developments under way or in the pipeline. Cllr Williams, in a separate observation, pointed out that SADC's SLP - which inevitably influenced NP aspirations - was currently on hold, though it was hoped its status would be clearer by June.
Other views from the body of the hall included an observation - which was not disputed - that the NP could have no influence on the threat of housing development on Harpenden's north-eastern doorstep which could be sanctioned by Central Bedfordshire District Council.
As to the position of the NP within the ‘umbrella' of the STP, raised by another resident at the meeting, the Town Clerk maintained that it would give the town council ‘more teeth' in arguing for local concerns than would otherwise be the case. And that, he said, included the controversial issue of Green Belt development on the edge of Harpenden.
On that theme, Harpenden Society committee member John Davis said the need to meet government-imposed housing targets should be met by going ‘upwards' rather than ‘outwards', by building multi-storey apartments close to the town centre. If the NP could successfully influence the implementation of such a strategy, the Green Belt threat would be eased and the much-vaunted provision of ‘affordable homes', notably for first-time buyers, would be made more achievable.
Rosemary Ross, on behalf of Harpenden Local History Society, expressed the hope that the NP, in aiming for ‘sustainable' development, should include in its remit a requirement for new building, especially in the historic centre of the town, to be architectually in character with adjacent - typically much older - properties.
Harpenden's seemingly intractable traffic and parking problems were inevitably raised at the March meeting. Within the context of the NP, no ‘silver bullet' solutions were forthcoming, although there was one salient comment from a member of the audience who foresaw some form of London-style congestion charge being eventually imposed on drivers entering the town centre.