Welwyn Hatfield Council's Local Plan hanging by thread after mauling at public hearing
PUBLISHED: 11:47 22 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:19 22 September 2017
Welwyn Hatfield Council's Local Plan is hanging by a thread after an explosive public hearing with the planning inspector.
The local authority’s plan for 12,000 homes by 2032 was savaged on several fronts at yesterday’s eight-hour meeting, concluding with inspector Melvyn Middleton needing to re-assess the evidence before deciding whether to throw it out.
While siding with WHC on the majority of issues, he said he was currently unable to decide whether it had fulfilled its duty to cooperate before submission – a fundamental requirement.
“What will happen with that is in the next week when I go through the evidence if I come to the conclusion it should go the way of St Albans [Council] then I will write to the council and postpone future hearings,” Mr Middleton said.
However, he added the most likely outcome was holding fire on the decision until after the next scheduled meeting in October.
The core criticism revolved around the council’s cooperation with St Albans District Council (SDC), which had its Local Plan chucked out last year.
James Strachan QC, representing Arlington Business Parks, attacked the council’s claim that it had fulfilled its duty with SDC – turning his gun turret directly to WHC’s actions regarding Symondshyde.
He said the local authority’s engagement had clearly not been collaborative and ongoing, and had not “left no stone unturned” as it was required to – reflected in SDC’s own claim that WHC had failed to meet its duty.
He added that it would take a “heroic leap” from the inspector to conclude that WHC’s cooperation regarding Symondshyde was adequate.
Upon completing the gut-punch contribution, onlookers released a collective chuckle, while council representatives watched on helplessly wearing stony-faced expressions.
Bouncing off the ropes council barrister Wayne Beglan said there was clear evidence of cooperation with neighbouring authorities – exemplified in the Birchall Garden Suburb proposals with East Herts.
He added that SDC has admitted it needed to do more in terms of cooperation – before highlighting examples where one council succeeds in fulfilling its cooperation obligations despite the other’s failure.
“I suggest to you that it’s perhaps regrettable that they are here but they are the only one [local authority] suggesting that we haven’t complied with the duty to cooperate,” he added.
Another debated issue was public involvement, with resident Karen Winbow claiming the council seemed to “pay lip service” before ignoring everything people say.
Lib Dem councillors Nigel Quinton and Paul Zukowskyj also said that making no amendments, despite thousands of representations, reflected a lack of public involvement during consultation.
However, the inspector retorted that the local authority can involve the public without agreeing to its suggestions.
Much of the anger revolved around building on the Green Belt, but Mr Middleton added: “It’s very unusual for people to lie down and say the Green Belt should be built on.
“If they were doing that where I live I would be protesting, but that’s not to say in planning terms it’s wrong.”
During the onslaught the council also revealed it wants to conduct an “early review” to reach the objectively assessed need, which critics claimed was a clear admission of the plan’s inadequacy.
Also discussed was Panshanger airfield, with aviation enthusiast Jane Quinton highlighting how enough room had not been left for an airfield.
Sue Tiley, the council’s planning policy and implementation manager, responded: “The policy for Panshanger facilitates its re-provision to the north, but it isn’t a requirement because from looking at the evidence we do not think it’s a requirement to replace it.”
Slicing through the decorations, the inspector said: “That tends to mean that it won’t happen.”
WHC now faces an anxious wait hoping that the bullet doesn’t arrive, meaning the strategic hearing scheduled for October 23 would go ahead as planned.