St Albans city centre (pic: Bill Boaden via Geograph)

Why St Albans isn't cooperating with its neighbouring authorities

The Hertfordshire council has failed the duty to cooperate twice in four years in its efforts to adopt an up-to-date local plan. Observers say politics has played a key part in the district’s failure to meet the legal requirement.

It has been 26 years since St Albans City and District Council last adopted a local plan. But it may take several more years before the local authority is able to put in place an up-to-date development strategy. In April, planning inspectors warned the council that they were likely to recommend that the district withdraw its plan from the examination process.

The two inspectors listed numerous concerns in their letter, including over the plan’s proposed level of green belt release. But it was their conclusion that the district had failed to meet the duty to cooperate, which requires continuous engagement with neighbouring authorities on strategic matters, that was critical. Just four years ago, a previous iteration of the St Albans local plan was similarly rejected by an inspector for failing to meet the duty, a decision later confirmed by the High Court after it was challenged by the council (see timeline, below).

In their April letter, the inspectors wrote that they had “serious concerns regarding the duty to cooperate” and considered it a “very strong likelihood that there will be no other option other than that the plan is withdrawn from examination or we write a final report recommending its non-adoption because of a failure to meet the duty to cooperate”. However, they added that they had not reached “an absolute or final position” and that the district had the chance to respond.

The inspectors were particularly critical of the plan’s allocation of a green belt site at Radlett for a new 2,300-home garden village, despite the fact that the site was granted consent for a strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI) in 2014 by the former communities secretary Eric Pickles. The inspectors claimed the site’s allocation for housing had not been properly discussed with neighbouring authorities.

While a lack of joint working on the whole plan was an issue for the inspectors, their main objection around the duty concerned the failure to consult neighbours on this large strategic site, says Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners. “There was a fall-out with the county council and others over that site,” she says. “It’s an absolutely classic case of a political decision that ignored any sort of contribution from neighbouring authorities.”

According to David Bainbridge, planning director at consultancy Savills, part of the problem was that the council had decided the Radlett site was not the sort of “strategic” matter, with cross-boundary relevance to the council’s neighbours, to which the duty to cooperate applies. “The inspectors, quite rightly, consider that it is strategic. The inspectors did not find evidence of effective joint working or cooperation,” he says.

Riddell says she does have some sympathy with the authority and that the situation demonstrates how flawed the duty to cooperate is. She points out that St Albans City and District Council has been working on a joint development plan with neighbouring councils in south west Hertfordshire and has signed a memorandum of understanding with the other authorities, but this could not be taken into account by the inspectors, as they are only allowed to consider cooperation specifically undertaken for the local plan. “The fact that they are working on a joint plan doesn’t count for anything,” she says. “That’s just bonkers.” She argues that the lack of cooperation on the Radlett site should not have meant the entire plan going back to square one.

For Rob Foers, planning lead at local authority body the District Councils’ Network, the long-running St Albans situation illustrates the need for further government guidance on the duty to cooperate.

Vincent Gabbe, director of planning, development and regeneration at consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton, agrees. “A lot of local authorities are having difficulty with the duty to cooperate,” he says, “which raises questions about whether it could be clearer as to what the procedural expectations are and whether any concerns could be raised earlier in the local plan preparation process.” Research by consultancy Lichfields shows that the St Albans plan is the 14th to have failed the duty since its introduction in 2012 (see table overleaf). However, the research also shows that only five per cent of all plans examined in that period have been failed on these grounds.

In early July, the council’s spatial planning team suggested to the inspectors that the council modify the plan to acknowledge the consent for the Radlett SRFI, and to drop the garden village allocation. Officers also sought to address concerns raised by the inspectors that the council had proposed the allocation of green belt sites for development despite failing to engage with neighbouring councils on their ability to accommodate St Albans’ unmet housing need. “It has always been clear that none of the south-west Hertfordshire authorities have the ability to meet any other authorities’ housing requirements,” officers said, advising that further discussion would have been ineffective.

In light of their suggestion, St Albans officers urged the inspectors to reconsider their advice that the plan should be withdrawn from examination.

However, with the saga of St Albans’ local plan having already gone on for so long, some commentators are growing sceptical about whether the authority actually wants an up-to-date plan at all. They argue that, given the high level of housing need in the district, and the fact that it constitutes more than 80 per cent green belt, drawing up a robust plan would involve the council making some very unpopular decisions.

“A cynical observer could suggest they don’t want to put a local plan in place as they have a level of protection because of their green belt boundaries,” says Tim Burden, director at consultancy Turley. “It’s not a vote-winner, ultimately.”

But St Albans Council head of planning Tracy Harvey says it is keen to have an up-to-date plan in place “as soon as possible”, hence why it is urging the inspectors to accept its proposed solution. “If the inspectors are minded to restart the examination, we would aim to get a local plan in place as soon as we can,” she says.

The plan’s future now depends on how the inspectors respond to the committee’s letter. If they agree to continue with the examination, with the Radlett site removed, it is possible that a plan could be in place relatively soon. If they do not – and the expectation among consultants is that they will not – some fear that the council may end up facing government intervention. The authority was one of 15 threatened with a Whitehall takeover of its local plan preparation back in 2017 (see timeline).

“Does there come a time when St Albans needs intervention?” asks Burden. “It has now failed twice in the last four years, and who’s to say it will be third time lucky? It’s not easy for them and they’ve got to make some difficult decisions. But really, they should be getting it right by now. It’s very clear what they are required to do with the duty to cooperate. It’s really not a high bar.”