As the Local Plan saga continues, Welwyn West's Conservative councillor Sunny Thusu provides an in-depth look at problems holding up Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.

Back in 2018, the very first committee meeting I attended as a newly elected borough councillor was all about the Local Plan – the council’s blueprint for the new housing it intends to build over the next 20 years or so.

Now, years later, Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council has progressed as far as consulting residents on its current draft of the Local Plan. Much has changed in that time, yet the salient Local Plan issues remain the same – how many new homes should we build, and where should we build them?

That forms the basis of the core issue, but to answer those two fundamental points one must consider a litany of complex tertiary questions.

I read, hear, and speak with residents across Welwyn Hatfield about the Local Plan basically every day. Due in large part to the intricate detail which always accompanies discussions about development, I’ve come to know of a range of misconceptions and misunderstandings which are gradually becoming accepted.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Cllr Sunny Thusu.Cllr Sunny Thusu. (Image: Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council)

First, it’s important to understand that we must take our fair share of new houses. We are set a target by an independent, government-appointed inspector.

The inspector assigned to Welwyn Hatfield has always insisted we should build way more than is appropriate, and the Conservative group of councillors of which I am a part of has always pushed back firmly.

However, it is not an option to simply not build anything. It is right and proper that we engage with the Local Plan process, by compromising with the inspector and building some new homes.

Beyond that, a much-discussed theme is local infrastructure. Or rather, a lack of infrastructure that many fear would come with new developments.

These concerns most commonly revolve around access to healthcare. As the local population grows, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that there are enough medical staff and medical facilities to meet the needs of both existing and soon-to-be Welwyn Hatfield residents.

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In my view, the requirement is not to simply build more doctor’s surgeries. It’s an issue of finding new staff to deal with the influx of people new housing developments usually bring, and funding them.

I recently discussed the matter of how the increase in housing numbers would affect ability to deliver services with two different General Practices, and I learned that a typical General Practice receives an average of £164 for each new patient to register with them.

This money comes from the government and is used to hire staff and provide wider access to medical services.

Understanding this as I now do, the issue of how any new residents of Welwyn Hatfield might access healthcare is far less a concern.

A similar question is about schools; where will new school pupils end up? The answer is similar to that of the healthcare question. Schools receive a per-pupil funding, which in Hertfordshire is £4,535 for Primary School pupils and £5,854 for Secondary School students per year.

With some larger developments, provision for the construction of brand-new schools is given, as is the case with the new development in Panshanger. Schools are always built where the housing numbers increase significantly.

Moving on from infrastructure, there is no question that new homes need to be built. The government’s target of 300,000 per year is similar to that of other political parties.

National housing targets, set by the government, are intended to address the housing crisis by providing a framework for the construction of new homes. However, these targets are sometimes unrealistic, and fail to consider the unique challenges of the area to which they apply.

For instance, Welwyn Hatfield does not have the abundance of brownfield sites, so the Green Belt has become the Inspector’s area of choice for new buildings.

READ MORE: Conservatives hit back at Lib Dem Local Plan U-turn claims

Local Conservatives have pushed back against Green Belt development at every turn. We’ve also done what’s possible to make sure building on Brownfield sites is kept to a sensible level, for instance by voting to reduce the number of new dwellings on the two main Broadwater Road, WGC, from 2,000 to 1,400. This constitutes a reduction of 30 per cent.

Welwyn Hatfield’s Local Plan process has always been hamstrung by the inflexibility of the Inspector.

He has been reluctant to work with the council, local community groups and the borough councillors to ensure his assertions are fair and reasonable, and that the delivery of essential services such as infrastructure, healthcare, and education is not compromised.

Letters and articles from Government ministers which suggest an imminent change in the law that currently means councils must stick so rigidly to numbers and targets set out by the Inspector assigned to them are encouraging, however until these changes are written in ink - in new legislation - the Inspector will continue to ignore local concerns and mandate targets based on outdated formulae.

To conclude, the issue of the Local Plan, the infrastructure concerns, national housing targets and the difficulty local authorities have in delivering these are all exceptionally complex matters.

The government must take the lead in addressing these issues by changing the aforementioned legislation, and it must work closely with local authorities, community groups, and residents to ensure the need for new housing is met in a way that works for everyone.

Only then can we hope to address the housing crisis and ensure that everyone has a safe, affordable place to call home.