Planning Inspector Provides Detailed Feedback on St Albans’ Draft Local Plan

Planning Inspectors have now provided detailed feedback to St Albans City and District Council following concerns expressed earlier in the year over its draft Local Plan. The letter is overall highly critical of Council’s approach and very largely seems to accept many of the objections put forward during the first few days of the Examination in Public in January.

The planning inspector had earlier in January 2020 written to the Council having serious concerns in terms of legal compliance and soundness of the draft local plan, following initial hearing sessions earlier this year. Consequently, the inspectors in their letter dated 14th of April 2020 cited six areas of main concern. The key issue that the inspectors felt was the Council failing to ‘engage constructively and actively’ with the neighbouring local authorities on Radlett Strategic Rail Freight Interchange proposal in drawing up the draft Local Plan that was submitted in March 2019.

As we are aware that Local Plans set out a blueprint for development in an area over a specific period, and concerning St Albans City and District Council’s emerging Local Plan, the planning period is for 2020 – 2036. The draft Local Plan dealt with issues such as housing, and jobs, as well as the kind of infrastructure that is required like schools and medical facilities.

The then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government now referred to as (Housing, Communities and Local Government) Local) granted planning permission for a Strategic rail freight terminal at a site near Park Street to the South of St Albans. The site is the location of one of the areas identified for housing in the St Albans draft Local Plan.

The Inspectors in their feedback letter noted what they considered to be the Duty to Cooperate under Section 33A and 33A(4) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.“in order to safeguard the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (Planning) permission”. The Inspectors had expected the Council to have done more in seeking that the neighbouring local authorities accommodate either the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange, or the housing proposed for the site in line with Section in line with Paragraph 25 and 26 of the NPPF.

The Duty to Cooperate (DtC) under Paragraph 25 and 26 of the NPPF, requires the Council to engage constructively, actively and on an on-going basis in relation to the preparation of Local Plan documents so far as relating to a strategic matter (in order to maximise the effectiveness of plan preparation). In particular, joint working should help to determine where additional infrastructure is necessary, and whether development needs that cannot be met wholly within a particular plan area could be met elsewhere.

The letter noted that, although a large site in the district (the Radlett site) had secured planning permission for a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange , but it is proposed for housing in the draft local plan as Park Street Garden Village Broad Location and not identified as a strategic matter by the Council, thus, not included in the draft Local Plan. Ultimately the proposed development (Park Street Garden Village) has the effect of precluding the permission for the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange. As a result, the Council considers that it did not need to cooperate in relation to this matter, since the policy on the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange ceased to be a strategic site promoted under the plan, it was no longer required to engage in the Duty to Cooperate discussions.

The argument by the Council that the Duty to Cooperate applies only to proposals in the plan, since by their very nature, approaches to unmet needs will not be included in the plan (since there is no provision to address them there) was found to be unreasonable by the Inspectors. They found the use of the land in Radlett site, whether as a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange site or a housing allocation to be a strategic matter which the Council should have been engaging and cooperating with neighbouring authorities about.

There is also the concern of the inspectors that the draft Local Plan had not complied with the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement which fails to meet objectively assessed needs and that the absence of key pieces of supporting evidence for the plan, such as demonstrating that other nearby authorities have been approached in terms of the possibilities of accommodating either the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange, or the housing that is proposed on site.

The Inspectors submitted that whilst the Council’s decision not to pursue the allocation of the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange in the plan does not in itself indicate a failure to comply with the Duty to Cooperate, however, the Council had not engaged or cooperated with other bodies (including other LPAs) with regard to this issue. This includes in relation to the reasons as to why it had not considered to include the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange as an allocation in the plan, or why housing is now proposed there. Consequently, they concluded that the effectiveness of the Council’s plan preparation has not been maximised in this regard.

The Council’s approach to the Green Belt Studies was another area of concern to the Inspectors as the Council had received warnings in 2017 and 2018 that, it would face Central Government intervention if it failed to deliver its Local Plan in a timely manner. Hence, the Green Belt Studies was rapidly completed. The Plan proposes substantial Green Belt boundary alterations to enable land to come forward for development.

Paragraph 137 of the NPPF requires that before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to Green Belt boundaries, the strategic planning authority should be able to demonstrate that it has examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development. The Inspectors noted that the Council had not demonstrated that their approach to the Green Belt had been informed by discussions with neighbouring authorities on whether they could accommodate some of the identified need for development, as demonstrated through a Statement of Common Ground  (SoCG) in accordance with Paragraph 137(c) of the NPPF.

The Inspectors express doubt as to whether adequate studies have been undertaken and evidence produced to justify that exceptional circumstances exist to alter the Green Belt boundaries. In particular Paragraph 58 of their letter states that “if the examination is to continue, a new Green Belt Review would need to be undertaken……” something for which we have strongly pressed. They submitted that, whilst their concerns are substantial, they will not make an absolute final decision as to whether or not the Duty to Cooperate has been met until the Council has had the chance to respond to their letter.

Reference was made to the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) which had set up reasonable expectation that the Council would undertake a Preferred Options Consultation on the Plan prior to its submission. However, this did not take place, rather the Plan had commenced from Issues and Options in January/February of 2018 with no Preferred Option Stage. Thus, the Plan was not prepared in compliance with the SCI and there has been a breach of Section 19(3) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

The Inspectors submitted that the plan had not been prepared in accordance with the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement (SCI), that it “fails to meet objectively assessed needs and that key pieces of supporting evidence are absent.” In other words, they suggest the Council consultation process was flawed.

On the question of whether the Plan meets the required tests for soundness, the Inspector’s question the wisdom of Council relying on a number of major strategic sites to meet their housing need whilst arbitrarily rejecting any site which would yield fewer than 500 dwellings. The Inspectors express concerns about the narrow focus that has been placed on relying only on the larger sites, which has effectively “ruled out an important potential source of housing.”

The letter also indicates that the Inspectors do not accept that Council has given first consideration to Previously Developed Land (i.e. “Brownfield sites”) which they are required to do before contemplating the release of Green Belt.

In relation to the issues set out above, the Inspectors stated that they have substantial soundness concerns with elements of the plan and have found legal compliance issues with the consultation process.

The Inspectors concluded by informing the Council that they “will not reach an absolute or final position until St Albans City and District Council have the chance to consider and respond to the letter.” No timescale for this is specified. They state however that “we consider it a very strong likelihood that there will be no other option other than that the plan be withdrawn from examination or that we write a final report recommending the plan’s non adoption…”

St Albans City District Council Councillor, Jamie Day, a portfolio holder for Planning in the Council stated the importance of the need to progress the Local Plan in order to manage the District’s growth in a sustainable and positive way. He expressed that the Council is keen to deliver the much-needed housing in sustainable locations but, stated that their efforts to do so are curtailed somewhat by the complexities involved.

Concerning the Freight Interchange, the Councillor noted that it is in a unique position of having a Government-permitted strategic rail freight terminal site actively promoted by landowner for alternative housing use. He noted that Council have over recent years made effort with the neighbouring Local Councils and the County Council to demonstrate its commitment to cooperating with them, hence, found it disappointing for the Inspectors to call out the Council on this point.

The Councillor stated that the council would respond to the Inspector’s letter in order to address the concerns raised and that they had already engaged with the Local Government Association to review the way that their Planning Department works and to benchmark it against other local authorities so as to strengthen it for the future. He however noted that the review has been unavoidably delayed by the ongoing Coronavirus Control measures put in place by the Central Government.

Councillor Richard Curthoys, Conservative Group spokesperson on the Planning Policy Committee disclosed the Council displeasure with the Inspectors Letter by stating that: “many of the iterations of the duty to cooperate (DtC) meetings between 2017 and 2019 had not been recognised by the Inspectors”.

Furthermore, the Councillor referred to the Inspectors statement that: “a lack of objections to the plan is not an indication that the duty to cooperate has been complied with”, to be particularly confusing, as the plan was discussed and presented to all statutory consultees who were then asked both verbally and in writing if they had any objections and whether the DtC had been complied with. He also considered the Inspectors conclusions on the Duty to cooperate and the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange site to be completely baffling, giving the topographical nature of the  requirements of this kind of site.

Councillor Malachy Pakenham, Labour Group spokeperson said: “The Rail Freight Interchange Site (Radlett site) was always going to be difficult to incorporate into the Local Plan as Park Street Garden Village”. 

The implication of the Planning Inspector’s letter in my view is that, St Albans City and District Council options are limited,  the withdrawal of the draft Plan  seems the best option and  the planning process should start all over again. However, the Council would urgently need to look at all its options to consider the best way forward.

In progressing the Local Plan, there is the need for the Council to grasp the Central Government current position on intervention in complex situations such as those in St Albans City and District Council. There is also the need for the Council to consider the forthcoming Housing White Paper of the Government and lower demographic growth projections than previously.

The full text of the Planning Inspectors letter is available on St Albans City District Council Website below:

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