Councillors approve revised Local Plan

Protestors at night holding banner and signs saying 'Save Symondshyde'

More than 40 residents attended the meeting on January 27. - Credit: Local Democracy Reporting Service

Councillors in Welwyn Hatfield have agreed on a new approach to lower the amount of housing in their Local Plan, despite opposition groups saying it was “skewed” against larger towns in the borough.

At a meeting of full council on Thursday, January 27, councillors voted through plans to submit a revised version of the council’s November 2020 draft, which will see the council plan for 13,279 homes – rather than the inspector-set target of 15,200.

The leader of the council said the administration was “stuck between a rock and a hard place”, but presented a “viable alternative” that involved less building on the Green Belt.

The new plans involve the scrapping of plans to build 1,500 homes in a new village in Symondshyde, and for 300 homes in Brookmans Park.

READ MORE: 'Where are the housing reductions for Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield?'

Opposition councillors in the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups argued the plan would see Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield take the brunt of new development.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, officers warned councillors the inspector has previously rejected a strategy for 13,277 homes and if the draft is found unsound it could leave the council open to speculative planning applications.

However, the leader of the council, Councillor Tony Kingsbury (Conservative, Welwyn West) said the administration was “going as far as we can” to avoid excessive building on green space and defended the proposal.

He said: “I’m thinking exactly the same as everyone else, we are between a rock and a hard place. This is one of the hardest decisions for this council in all the time I’ve served here.

READ MORE: Council confirms which Local Plan sites will be dropped

“It is important that we get a plan in place but we do need to consider and listen to the views of our residents. I’m sure all members have received many emails from concerned residents with various views, and also from developers. We do need to listen, but views can be conflicting and we do need to make a decision tonight.”

Cllr Kingsbury added: “The alternative we are discussing tonight was put forward, which I believe is going as far as we can and would at least be a viable plan to go forward and I hope the inspector can see it as such.”

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However, opposition groups said they would rather the council start afresh on the plan 12 years after work began after saying their concerns had still not been addressed.

Councillor Russ Platt (Liberal Democrat, Peartree) said under the proposed plan 18 per cent of new homes for the borough would be built in one road in his Welwyn Garden City ward, and warned the plans would be the “beginning of the end of the garden city”.

Liberal Democrat group leader, Councillor Paul Zukowskyj (Welham Green and Hatfield), criticised the planning process for taking choices away from local people, and said he couldn’t vote for a plan that would “damage my community”.

He said: “If you want to see a sensible Local Plan, we should just draw a line under this entire sorry situation and start again. I will not vote to damage my community, that is what the proposal on the table does – I just won’t do it, that’s not what I was elected to do.”

Labour group leader Councillor Kieran Thorpe (Hatfield South West) echoed criticism of the “flawed” planning process and said the local MP Grant Shapps and central government had failed to meet their promises to protect the area.

The councillor said the council, by returning to an approach already rejected by the inspector, risks losing control of decision-making.

Cllr Thorpe said: “I know, faced with the demands of the inspector and the fact you are now out of options and out of time, you’d rather try and wash your hands of it and defy those demands.

"Even if that means losing control of the planning process, even if it means higher house building happening, even if it means someone else making all the decisions.”

The proposals passed after Conservative councillors said it was important to return to the inspector with an updated plan, and argued individual planning issues could be discussed if the plan is adopted.

Councillor Sunny Thusu (Conservative, Welwyn West), who proposed the reduction during the Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel meeting earlier this month, acknowledged “there is no good thing as a good site”, and said the new plan, while a compromise, still offered sustainable growth in the borough.

The executive member for planning, Councillor Stephen Boulton (Conservative, Brookmans Park and Little Heath) added: “I really don’t want to accept these numbers, but there’s a difference between those who carp and snipe and those who have to govern.

“We have to govern and the advice we have heard from experts, including QCs, is that we will have to do so, and we will have to find numbers to eventually find a sound plan. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a difficult one and a necessary one.”

In response to concerns about over-development in Welwyn Garden City, Councillor Fiona Thomson (Conservative, Handside) said it could be time to consider the future of the former Nabisco silos and adjoining production hall.

She said development along Broadwater Road is likely, but “removal of the silos might open the door to a more acceptable lower-height, lower-density development”.

The amended draft plan passed by 25-13, and the council will now return to the inspector with the modified strategy.