St Albans Council's Plan to Build Houses close to Leverstock Green

BACKGROUND

Proposals to develop the Crown Estate land, formally part of the Gorhambury Estate, west of the M1 go back many years. In 2004, the East of England Regional Plan included extensive proposals involving this land. In 2008, a study by consultants on behalf of the Crown Estate argued that this area was ‘a poor quality urban fringe’ and the removal of the area from the Green Belt would not ‘harm the Green Belt functions’. The report recommended a redrawing of the Green Belt boundary to exclude the areas now earmarked for development. Although the Regional Plans were scrapped by the incoming Government in 2010, the underlying requirement for substantial numbers of new houses in Dacorum and St Albans has, if anything, become even more pressing. However, any proposals to extend these urban areas are heavily constrained by the Green Belt which is tightly drawn around both Hemel Hempstead and St Albans.

Current Government policy requires that Green Belt can only be released for development ‘under exceptional circumstances’. The definition of what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’ is a grey area!

ST ALBANS STRATEGIC LOCAL PLAN

In 2014, St Albans City & District Council (SADC) issued the first draft of its Strategic Local Plan (SLP). The Plan drew heavily on the findings of a study by consultants SKM commissioned by St Albans, Dacorum and Welwyn & Hatfield Councils. The study looked at the Green Belt in SW Herts and ‘prioritised’ all areas in terms of their value against the Green Belt criteria. Controversially, the Plan proposed that St Albans should meet its housing requirements by largely developing areas away from the City. In particular, the area west of the M1 was identified as having ‘low value’ in Green Belt terms and was earmarked for 2,500 houses.

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The above map shows the area north of Maylands towards Redbourn earmarked for 1,500 houses – the development area is shown in yellow.

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The orange area on the above map between Maylands and the M1 is earmarked for limited industrial development because there is an exclusion zone around Buncefield. The yellow area between Leverstock Green and the M1 is of most interest to the village and is earmarked for 1,000 houses.

The LGVA Environmental Sub-Committee (ESC) objected vehemently to the proposal, and indeed the SADC received many thousands of objections from across SW Herts. Our views were ignored, and in late 2015 a second draft contained the same proposal. Again, the LGVA objected in the strongest possible terms. Dacorum also made a robust response challenging the St Albans’ calculation of its housing requirements and called for greater co-operation. 

In August 2016, St Albans submitted the SLP to the Secretary of State and the Government appointed David Hogger as the Inspector of the Public Examination. Mr Hogger, who had been the Inspector for the Dacorum Core Strategy in 2014, quickly identified that there were major concerns over St Albans Duty to Co-operate with neighbouring councils. He decided to hold a preliminary hearing to address the issue.

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SADC PUBLIC EXAMINATION

In October 2016, LGVA Environmental Sub-Committee (ESC) representatives attended the hearing in St Albans. In a packed chamber of representatives of neighbouring councils, interest groups and the public, St Albans argued strongly that they had met their obligations to co-operate. Dacorum, seven other councils and Herts County Council all said that they hadn’t. At the end of the session, Joanne Wicks QC, representing various groups in Harpenden, cast doubt over the St Albans’ evidence. The Inspector asked for her submission in writing and he reserved judgement until all the Councils had been given the opportunity to express their opinions on the new evidence. St Albans robustly refuted Joanne Wicks evidence.

In November, St Albans started a consultation on their Detailed Local Plan (DLP) which is the next stage in the planning process. The DLP provides a policy framework for the SLP and gives guidance on the standards, rules and regulations which will apply to the proposals. However, there is little additional detail concerning the planned development. 

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RULING BY THE PLANNING INSPECTOR ON THE SLP

In late November 2016, we learned that the Planning Inspector had written to SADC concluding that the legal Duty to Co-operate had not been met. Mr Hogger advised that the evidence submitted to him clearly demonstrated that prior to the submission of the SLP SADC ‘had not given satisfactory consideration to identifying, addressing and seeking co-operation with regard to strategic cross-boundary matters and priorities’. This is a serious setback for SADC and they are effectively faced with either the Inspector recommending non-adoption of the SLP or withdrawing the Plan and starting the process again in a climate of improved co-operation with the neighbouring councils.

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SADC decided to appeal against the Inspector’s decision and to seek a Judicial Review. The Council presented evidence to a High Court judge who ruled that some of their case was ‘arguable’.  SADC will present their arguments to the High Court in June 2017, and if successful, a Judicial Review will go ahead immediately. If such a Review finds in SADC’s favour, the SLP will then return to the Inspector who will consider the ‘soundness’ of the Plan. In the meantime, meetings, described as being ‘friendly and constructive’ are taking place with neighbouring councils, including DBC.

THE CROWN ESTATE’S PROPOSALS

Prior to the Public Examination of the SLP, and with very little notice or advanced publicity, the Crown Estate arranged an exhibition in Holy Trinity Church Hall to ‘consult on their ‘vision’ for the East of Hemel Site. Interestingly, St Albans asked the Crown Estate to postpone the exhibition, but they refused. Although the Hall was somewhat cramped, many residents, the LGVA committee members and all the local councillors attended. The exhibition outlined the Crown Estate’s aspirations for the site and involved the release of Green Belt far in excess of what SADC were proposing in their SLP. Exhibitions were also held in other locations including Redbourn. 

In November, Savills on behalf of the Crown Estate submitted to St Albans an ‘Environmental Impact Statement – Scoping Opinion’ which is the first step in the Planning Application process. The statement outlines the detailed environmental issues which will need to be addressed and significantly covers all of the Crown Estate land in East Hemel which is shown on this map edged in red.

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LGVA argued that this application was premature, to say the least.  However, it showed that the Crown Estate was determined to set the pace.

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Following the initial exhibitions, the Crown Estate decided to form an East Hemel Forum to ‘consider the replies to their consultation and to decide the way forward’. The Forum is run by the Crown Estates PR company Portland Communications and includes local councillors, representatives from village associations (including LGVA) and other groups with an interest in the proposals. The meetings are held monthly, and once approved, the minutes are posted on the Crown Estate East Hemel website.

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The Crown Estate intend to produce a Master Plan for East Hemel, and a series of consultation/exhibitions on the draft proposals will be held in local venues. The event in Leverstock Green Village Hall will be on Saturday 24th June 2017 between 10am and 2pm. LGVA intends to encourage as many village residents as possible to attend. Further information will be posted on this website, and an information leaflet will be distributed to homes in the village. (See Announcement on Home page)

Having produced their Master Plan, it is not clear how the Crown Estate intend to proceed. They could either put their proposals on hold until the SLP is resubmitted and approved, or they could press ahead with a planning application based on the extant St Albans Local Plan which dates from 1994. LGVA believes that this plan precludes building on the Green Belt, and the application should, therefore, be rejected.

WAY AHEAD

Although there is remains a great deal of uncertainty as to the way ahead with the SADC SLP, LGVA has concluded that we are unlikely to be able to prevent the St Albans development eventually going ahead. However, we hope to be able to minimise the impact on the village and to insist that the necessary roads, infrastructure and facilities required to support the development are put in place – ideally before the houses are built. We would also aim to try to restrict the loss of Green Belt to the area proposed in the original St Albans SLP.  Finally, we will need to be prepared to exploit any opportunities that the proposals may bring to the village.