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 SLP

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, north of Junction 8, is earmarked for limited industrial development because there is an exclusion zone around Buncefield. The yellow area between Leverstock Green and the M1, south of Junction 8, 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 Spring this year, we used the LGVA Newsletter to advise residents of the plans and also our intention to try to limit the impact on the village.

In August, 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 on 26 October.

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CROWN ESTATE EXHIBITION

Prior to the hearing, on 20 October, and with very little notice and advanced publicity, the Crown Estate arranged an exhibition at 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 what the Crown Estate would LIKE to do and involved the release of Green Belt far in excess of what St Albans were proposing in their SLP. We had extensive discussions with the Crown Estate’s representatives challenging their proposals. Exhibitions were also held in other locations including Redbourn.

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SADC PUBLIC EXAMINATION

On the 26 October, LGVA Environmental Sub-Committee (ESC) representatives attended the hearing at St Albans Civic Centre. 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. He set a deadline of 22 November for them to respond and St Albans responded on the deadline day robustly refuting Joanne Wicks evidence.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS

In early November, the Crown Estate decided to form an East of Hemel Forum to ‘consider the replies to their consultation and to decide the way forward’. The LGVA was invited to attend and the first meeting is scheduled for 14 December.

On 9 November, we were advised that St Albans has 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. Copies of the DLP have been placed in Public Libraries, including Leverstock Green, with responses required by 21 December. St Albans exhibitions of the Detailed Local Plan were held in several locations including Redbourn Parish Hall on 28/29 November.

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On 21 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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Comments are required by 12 December. Again, we believe that this application is premature to say the least. However, it shows that the Crown Estate is determined to set the pace.

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Although not directly connected to the St Albans Plan, Prologis invited LGVA to attend an exhibition on 24 November of their proposals for a major new light industrial and retail development at the Maylands Gateway site. The planned development looks impressive but will further increase the pressure on the Breakspear Way roundabout. In this regard, Herts County Council has recently made public a consultation on their ‘Transport Vision 2050’. This document includes the plan to build the 2,500 houses in East Hemel and indicates that £60-70M is earmarked for major improvements to the transport infrastructure in the area.

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LGVA ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

On 28 November, over 60 residents attended the LGVA AGM, and the ESC gave a presentation covering the issues outlined above.

The meeting was advised that the LGVA has decided to join forces with other objectors to the St Albans Plan including Redbourn Parish Council, Joanne Wicks QC, the Harpenden Green Belt Association and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).

RULING BY THE PLANNING INSPECTOR ON THE SLP

On 29 November, 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 and humiliating setback for SADC. The Council is 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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It is not clear how long this is likely to take at this stage or where this leaves the Crown Estate. 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 extent of the St Albans Local Plan which dates from 1994. This plan precludes building on the Green Belt and should, therefore, be rejected.

WAY AHEAD

Although there is now a great deal of uncertainty as to the way ahead, 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.

March 2017 - LATEST UPDATES

The Crown Estate is holding a monthly East Hemel Forum to discuss the way forward and each meeting is attended by a representative of our Environmental Sub-Committee. St Albans District Council has declined to take part in these meetings.

Minutes of the meetings held on 14th December 2016 and 31st January 2017 can be found at http://www.easthemel.co.uk/east-hemel-forum/.

We have learned that SADC is to challenge the Inspector’s decision that they failed to co-operate. They are calling for a judicial review which, if granted, will result in a High Court hearing, probably in May.

Details were published in the Herts Advertiser and can be viewed at http://www.hertsad.co.uk/news/court-watch/st_albans_district_council_launches_legal_action_against_flawed_conclusion_1_4840239

Meanwhile meetings, described as being ‘friendly and constructive’ are taking place with neighbouring councils, including DBC.

Details are on the SADC website at http://www.stalbans.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/press-room/items/2017/january/2017-01-27-talks-on-slp-underway.aspx