"I have been asked to update and give some background regarding the current position of the Core Strategy or Local Plan as it will be now and this I am pleased to do. However before doing this I feel that it is important that I try and set the context within which local authorities such as our own now have to work and I want to start off by saying a few words about two matters known as the test of soundness and the duty to co operate. I will then talk a little about the housing challenges facing us and the finally where we go from here. In doing so I would stress that this part of the planning process is becoming increasingly complex and I am not an expert in such matters, that expertise is provided by our officers and in some instances by external specialists. My role is to discuss more generally the difficulties that I and my colleagues are faced with in resolving the future growth of our Borough and how we are going about that.
Starting with central government there is a clear expectation that local authorities should make provision to meet their housing needs. So what is our housing need? Well this has to take into account official population and housing projections. The last official government housing projections published last year suggest that over 870 new homes will be needed in Welwyn Hatfield each year (over a 20 year period, that’s 17,440 new dwellings). This is the third highest growth of any shire district in the country and is the number that the housebuilding industry expects us to meet and indeed will be the starting point from the government’s perspective. However the figures are only interim and more recent population figures published by ONS this year suggest that the need for new housing will be notably less than this. We are currently carrying out our own work to quantify this.
I will return to the numbers later because I want to talk about the importance of our Local Plan being found sound.
I am advised that in the good old days if a local authority’s plan did not match expectations the Inspector (who examines the plan) would make a number of recommendations that the local authority would comply with. It was obviously convenient for councils as they could blame the government Inspector for the final plan having been at pains to stand up for the local community. Under the new system the Local Plan produced by the council has to meet the various legal tests when it is formally submitted as well as being based on the evidence. If it does not it will be completely rejected and the council will have to go back to the drawing board. So in the case of meeting our housing figures if we do not meet them and have no exceptional circumstances to justify a lower figure then our Plan will be found unsound. If this happens we can expect planning applications from developers in the green belt and without an up-to-date plan against which to make decisions there is a very real prospect that the government inspector will allow those appeals. This is not an idle comment as there is clear evidence across the country that this is happening. It is therefore incumbent upon us to produce a sound plan that will not be rejected at an early stage which takes me back to the housing numbers.
Notwithstanding the government’s numbers we are required to calculate our own housing numbers and this work is currently taking place. I think it is fair to say that whilst I would hope that the figures are less than those suggested by the government officers have advised that it could still be significant and certainly substantially more than the 7,200 dwellings that we consulted on last year.
As you are all aware outside of the two main towns and the main villages like Brookmans Park the remainder of our borough is green belt. Given that the amount of housing that could come forward on brownfield sites within the towns and villages is likely to be in the region of 3,500 dwellings then any other housing can only come from land currently designated as green belt or safeguarded land.
This gives us an enormous challenge as although I am adamant that we are not going to embark upon a programme of widespread destruction of the green belt we cannot just shut up shop and not try to meet our housing needs. Local Authorities who do this will fail to have their plans accepted. So the question is whether it is possible to achieve a level of development that will make our plan sound but at the same time not destroy the character of our borough. I do not have an answer for this tonight but this is the challenge that we will be wrestling with over the forthcoming months.
It would be bad enough if it stopped there but sadly it does not as if we cannot provide for our entire housing number (which is likely) we still need to identify how the shortfall is met. That is by redistributing them them to other local authorities with their agreement – this is known as the duty to cooperate. Of course those local authorities are unlikely to accept our shortfall because in turn they will be expecting us to meet theirs. At this stage I believe that the planning system is beginning to collapse. However these are the rules so not only are we struggling to meet our needs we will also be defending land from developers and other local authorities. This is why getting it right is so important.
Just stepping back form Welwyn Hatfield for a minute it seems as hardly a week passes by where another local authority’s plan is found to be unsound. Inspectors are clearly taking a tough line particularly as to the extent that local authorities have gone to meet their housing numbers. In one case the local authority could not meet its housing numbers and the adjoining local authorities would not cooperate in finding land for its surplus. In that case the plan was still found unsound and one has to ask oneself what more could the council have done.
Back to Welwyn Hatfield the planning department are receiving requests from developers to enter into pre-application discussions on green belt sites in advance of our Plan being published and considered. Unfortunately under the current planning system we cannot refuse to undertake those discussions even though the site might be one that we have no intention of bringing forward through the plan. This is exceedingly difficult for the council to manage even with all the necessary caveats and of course it is completely mystifying to the local community. By way of example we have one such site at Northaw Road East in Cuffley where the developer has recently submitted an application of around 500 dwellings and 100 retirement units in the green belt. My view is this matter should ideally be considered as part of the Local Plan process and not pre-empted in this way. However that is not the current planning system. I mention this as although it would not be correct to discuss specific cases within Brookmans Park you will be aware of developer interest around the village.
So where do we go from here?
We consulted upon our first set of draft proposals between November 2012 and December 2013 and understandably received substantial objections from all of the communities who lived adjoining or close to the proposed development. Since then we have had the new housing figures which has raised the numbers and as I mentioned earlier we are currently assessing our own requirement and the infrastructure that might be needed to meet it or part of it. I would expect to publish proposals for housing sites for the borough for consultation at the end of the year.
Whatever it says it will not be popular as it will have to involve the release of some green belt land but I and my fellow councillors cannot duck the responsibility as much as it would be tempting to do so. To get to those proposals we will be re-examining every piece of land in the borough that has been put forward for consideration including green belt around the villages. This is important as even if we are not allowing green belt land to be developed upon we have to have good evidence as to why not, particularly if we cannot meet our housing figures.
I can assure you all that I am fully aware that the release of any green belt land is extremely sensitive and unpopular, but I believe that it is better to be in control at a local level than have it imposed by government. This is the reason why I will be saying to everyone that we need to work together to try to minimise the amount of green belt we use, and that just saying no everywhere is not the answer – this will probably lead to more loss of green belt due to speculative bids by developers, many of whom are currently watching and waiting. What I will want from you all is some open thinking and calm debate about how everyone can help by taking a share of the developments needed. I don’t want to see a single scrap of green belt used any more than we absolutely have to, but my thinking is that it must surely be more equitable for all communities if each agrees to take a small share of the requirement, thus easing the burden all round? This is the main thought that I want to leave you with. These are not easy decisions that we are being asked to make, but we have to make them, and I reiterate that it is better for us to keep control of our own environments rather than the alternative which would be to lose control to the developers, Government and remote Inspectors. "