Inspector tells council to meet homes target or start again

residents attended a meeting on January 27 holding a 'save symondshyde' banner

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

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council must meet their full housing target or start again with its Local Plan after a planning inspector showed no willingness to compromise with the authority.

Last month, the council stood firm against their 15,200 home target for the plan period, saying it would lead to significant building on the borough’s Green Belt but the inspector has shown little sympathy with the defence.

Instead, councillors agreed to back to their November 2020 plan to commit to 13,279 new homes instead, but inspector Melvyn Middleton has said he will no longer discuss housing targets with the authority.

Mr Middleton said WHBC must present a strategy to deliver the full amount of homes or withdraw the plan and start again – more than 10 years after work began on the proposals.

In one victory for the council and campaigners the inspector ruled that plans for a new 1,500 homes village Symondshyde were now unsound and should no longer be considered, but said the council cannot omit sound sites from Cuffley and Brookmans Park.

In his letter dated February 16, Mr Middleton criticised the council for releasing land from the Green Belt for employment space while also refusing to use the land to accommodate housing, and he could not support the Green Belt as a justification to lower the housing target.

The inspector also said significant levels of commuting is likely to continue, and the council had not sufficiently acknowledged how providing more homes could address affordability issues within the council.

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Mr Middleton wrote: “In an authority that already had a surplus of jobs over economically active people of around 20,000, it cannot be a sound judgement on the one hand to release land from the GB [Green Belt] to provide for even more jobs, whilst at the same time arguing that other land in the same GB cannot be released to provide land to facilitate the construction of housing for the additional workers that the job growth would attract or to address the Borough’s housing affordability crisis.”

The inspector made it clear he would not enter into discussion about the targets and the council would need to outline how they can meet the plan before March 21, or start afresh.

While the plan will cover a 15 year period,  the inspector did concede he would be willing to accept a strategy covering the next 10 years, before a review at a later stage to ensure the target was hit.

The letter concludes: “Please confirm if you intend to provide a sound plan that includes a ten-year supply of identified housing sites and thereby proceed quickly to MMs [the Minor Modifications stage] , by 21 March 2022. If not, please confirm that you intend to withdraw the plan. 

“If you do not intend to proceed to MMs but will not withdraw the plan, then regrettably I will write a brief report explaining that in those circumstances it would not be possible to recommend MMs that will make the plan sound, that it cannot be adopted and that the examination is closed.”

The government has set a target for all local authorities to have a Local Plan in place by 2023, with the council unlikely to meet that deadline if they agreed to restart the process.

The Liberal Democrat group welcomed the new 10-year approach and said the move could help decision making ahead of next month’s deadline.

Cllr Jane Quinton said: “Now the council has to either decide yet again which extra sites will make up the shortfall for the 10 year plan whilst not overburdening Welwyn Garden City, the only other option is to give up on this plan with all the risks that entails. 

“Surely it’s time for the Conservatives to stop manipulating the choices and face reality instead. £9m spent over 10 years and now we are the only council in the country yet to complete their plan – no wonder his impatience at the snail-like progress shows through.”

In response to the letter, Labour group leader Cllr Kieran Thorpe said it showed the process is unfit for purpose.

Cllr Thorpe said: “After all the years wasted and millions of pounds spent, this local plan process appears to bumble on with no one wanting to accept responsibility for something that no one is happy with.

“If housing need isn’t an appropriate thing to consider when planning house building for the near future, it beggars belief that this process mandated by a Conservative government and completely mishandled by this Conservative council is in any way fit for purpose.”

A statement from Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council said: “We are currently considering the Planning Inspector’s recent letter regarding the Local Plan.”

The council did not outline when the issue would next be discussed by councillors in public.