East Hertfordshire District Council was just hours away from voting on whether to adopt its local plan at an evening meeting when secretary of state James Brokenshire placed his holding direction on the document. The move, made earlier this month, orders the authority to pause work on the plan while Brokenshire considers whether to call it in.
The minister's intervention followed a request to halt the plan from the Conservative MP for neighbouring Stevenage, Stephen McPartland. The strategy passed its public examination earlier this year, but Brokenshire said he now wants to consider issues raised by McPartland and other campaigners, including the proposed release of green belt land.
The plan would proposes to release six per cent of the district’s green belt for development. The inspector’s report goes on to say the area removed from green belt totals about 1,000 hectares and would provide sites for about 43 per cent of the district’s housing land supply.
This is the second time an objection from McPartland has prompted a holding direction on a local plan. Last autumn, he called for Stevenage Borough Councils’s local plan to be halted, resulting in a holding direction that is yet to be lifted by the goverment more than ten months later.
In his latest letter, the Stevenage MP said he objects to East Hertfordshire's allocation of a green belt site at Gresley Park, on the eastern edge of Stevenage, for 600 homes. "The site was only included at the very last minute, because the council reversed its own principal planning officer’s objections and claimed the site had to be included to meet the required five-year land supply," he wrote. "However, East Hertfordshire now accepts it has the equivalent of 6.2 years’ land supply to cover the first five years of the remaining plan period – an excess of 1,464 dwellings."
Kevin Steptoe, East Hertfordshire Council’s head of planning, acknowledged this. "But the plan is looking over 15 years, so we want to ensure that there are deliverable sites over 15 years rather than concentrate solely on the first five years," he said. Steptoe added that the housing requirement for the district had increased part way through the process of preparing the plan, which meant more land was required for development, and hence the Gresley Park site was added to the document.
Inspector Christine Thorby’s report on the plan, published in July, found it sound, subject to modifications. On the Gresley Park site, Thorby concluded that the allocation was "better placed than the reasonable alternatives, particularly in terms of deliverability and access to the transport network". She found that the site could deliver 600 new homes, including around 500 within five years.
Steptoe said the holding direction – and the consequent absence of an adopted local plan – could have practical impacts in the district. "Prior to now, we have been in a position where speculative and unplanned development has been coming forward. We’ve had a number of developments of that type over the past two to three years," he said. "We are nervous that we are going to return to that position again. Landowners and developers may come forward with proposals that are not the best in sustainability terms, so we are potentially at risk in that respect."
According to David Bainbridge, planning partner at consultancy Bidwells, Brokenshire's holding direction could also cause uncertainty for developers, especially when the plan in question proposes allocating large numbers of green belt sites. "We act for a number of landowners and developer promoters who have land in the green belt, so they can’t rely on the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development," he said. "So they concentrate on the plan promotion side of things, and something like this can cause uncertainty."
Bainbridge said such landowners and developers would be reluctant "to press the button on planning applications" until they have confidence that the planning authority is going to adopt the plan with their land as an allocation. "Otherwise you’ve got to prove very special circumstances, so that’s a big risk factor."
Another issue raised by McPartland was his disappointment that East Hertfordshire "continues to refuse to work with Stevenage Borough Council and North Hertfordshire District Council to pursue the development of a new garden city, to resolve our local housing need once and for all". This suggestion was rejected by Steptoe, who pointed out that East Hertfordshire Council has complied with the duty to cooperate.
Stevenage Council – which itself is still awaiting the secretary of state's permission to move forward with its local plan following last November’s holding direction – also denied McPartland’s suggestion. John Gardner, the borough council’s executive member for environment and regeneration, said the councils "co-operated fully" throughout the plan-making process and came to agreement on the objectively assessed needs for the area.
Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor at local authority group the Planning Officers Society, said the Hertfordshire saga is a lesson to local authorities that they "need to make sure that MPs are fully consulted as early as possible" in the plan-making process. But she added that imposing a holding direction so late in the process is "not fair on local communities and local councillors".
A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it would make an announcement on both East Hertfordshire’s and Stevenage’s plans "in due course".
Three other local plan holding directions
- Birmingham. Duration: six months. Direction imposed in May 2016 after an objection from Andrew Mitchell, the Tory MP for Sutton Coldfield, about the plan's proposal for a 6,000-home urban extension on green belt. The direction was lifted in December 2016.
- Bradford. Duration: five months. Direction imposed in October 2016 after the Tory MP for Shipley, Philip Davies, objected to the plan's green belt releases. The direction was lifted in March 2017.
- Stevenage. Duration: ten months and counting. Direction imposed in November 2017 after concerns were raised by Stevenage Tory MP Stephen McPartland, including over proposals to regenerate Stevenage's train station and town centre. Direction still waiting to be lifted.