At the end of last month, housing secretary James Brokenshire finally lifted a 16-month holding direction barring the adoption of the new Stevenage local plan. The direction was initially issued by government in November 2017, following a request from Stevenage’s Conservative MP Stephen McPartland. So why has it taken so long for the order to be lifted, and what action has been agreed to allow the plan to be adopted?
In the original letter announcing the holding direction, former communities secretary Sajid Javid cited "plan policies and supporting text covering the regeneration of Stevenage train station and town centre" as the reason for his intervention. Alex Roberts, director of the strategic planning research unit at consultancy DLP Planning, said the move was made to force the council "to prepare a standalone local plan, or area action plan (AAP)" for that part of the town.
In his letter lifting the order, communities secretary James Brokenshire said the holding direction has been lifted on the understanding that the Labour-led council would "timetable the preparation of a statutory AAP for the Stevenage ‘Station Gateway’ area", which should be adopted by December 2020 at the latest. In addition, the council is required to publish a masterplan for two town centre sites and appoint a lead councillor and lead official responsible for preparing the AAP. Brokenshire also demanded monthly progress updates to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
However, the council said that it had accepted all of this in answers to government questions that it had submitted at the beginning of last year. Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Council said: "We worked very hard with the department and got everything back to them by January 2018 and it sat there for months and months with us chasing them."
She added that the borough's holding direction went on for twice as long as any other. "It does seem an extraordinary length of time," she said.
David Bainbridge, partner at consultancy Bidwells, said he could see no justification for the length of time it has taken. "There is no indication in the SoS letter as to what piece of the jigsaw was put in place to trigger the lifting," he said
Brokenshire’s letter did not say why getting to this point took so long, and a spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment further when asked. However, the decision came less than two months after the council announced it would launch judicial review proceedings to remove the holding direction. Taylor said this action came after the government failed to meet a promise to make a decision by November 2018.
Bainbridge said the legal threat could have played a big role in the lifting of the order. He said: "I would expect such a threat to be a product of desperation on behalf of the council and undoubtedly would have affected the timing for the lifting."
DLP’s Roberts said the impact of the holding direction was hard to quantify, but that it is "entirely likely that the delay will have stalled development in Stevenage". A council source said that the delay in adopting the local plan had caused nervousness among developers. "There is a big residential application to the north of Stevenage that needs the local plan to be adopted to be policy-compliant," the source said. "The uncertainty has delayed the submission of the application."
Stevenage Council leader Taylor also criticised local MP McPartland, whose complaint prompted the holding order. "I don’t understand what his problem has been," Taylor said. "To me one of the things as an MP you want to do is drive forward the development of your town. We have always wanted to work with him."
McPartland did not return calls and emails from Planning requesting comment on the case.