As planning battles go, this one has been titanic. There have been political rows, a change of administration, legal challenges, protests and letters to the press.
Now it seems that the battle for West Stevenage is over. Or is it? Last week deputy prime minister John Prescott issued his verdict on applications submitted by the West Stevenage Consortium, a joint venture comprising Taylor Woodrow, Persimmon and the Garden Village Partnership, for an urban extension on greenfield land to the west of the new town (Planning, 28 October, p1).
Prescott approved a 3,600-home development subject to the completion of a section 106 agreement on transport links and pedestrian and cycling networks. He agreed with inquiry inspector David Lavender that the scheme would provide much-needed homes in the area, particularly affordable ones.
However, he rejected a larger proposal for 5,000 homes on the grounds that this level of building would be premature in advance of strategic housing plans coming through the draft East of England Plan. A public examination on this regional spatial strategy (RSS) began this week.
Plans for an urban extension of up to 10,000 homes on green belt land west of the A1(M) were first considered in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, Hertfordshire County Council planners revived the proposal. It was confirmed in the 1998 structure plan, to which Prescott gave his blessing.
But with work under way on drawing up a masterplan, a rethink by the county council following a change of political control stopped everything in its tracks. Hertfordshire effectively disowned its own planning policy.
When applications were submitted in 2001, Prescott called them in, citing the national policy considerations at play.
The 3,600-home scheme is expected to move forward once the section 106 deal is signed. Gareth Capner, joint senior partner at Barton Willmore, which is consultant on the scheme, is not surprised that Prescott has taken a "cautious" decision in view of the strongly-held views over the scheme.
Andrew Dutton, project director for the consortium, says: "We will need to look very carefully at what proportion of this investment can be delivered in relation to the 3,600-home application and in what timescale." But he adds that he is hopeful that the scheme's outstanding issues can be tackled.
Peter Bandy, head of development and planning at Stevenage Borough Council, says that the council is happy to help the consortium work up an acceptable section 106 agreement. "To an extent the ball is in the applicant's court," he says. "But we are very supportive of growth, not least because we urgently need affordable housing."
But the scheme's opponents are aghast. The county argues that the RSS examination would have been the appropriate forum to assess the applications.
North Hertfordshire District Council is also disappointed. Regional and strategic developments manager John Ironside says that the council's legal team is assessing the scope for a legal challenge.
Campaign to Protect Rural England planning chief Henry Oliver says: "It is extraordinary that the government should make this decision a matter of days before the draft RSS examination begins. It is putting its cards on the table and pre-empting the discussion that will be heard at the examination."
The various parties are at loggerheads on a number of planning points.
After Hertfordshire switched from Labour and Liberal Democrat to Conservative control in 2000, it took the line that there was sufficient urban capacity in the county to provide for development needs up to 2011, so West Stevenage was deemed surplus.
Stevenage disagrees, arguing that the county's urban capacity work was flawed. This view appears to have been verified by Lavender and Prescott.
"Monitoring of past house building rates and existing commitments is, by itself, insufficient to demonstrate an adequacy of future housing land supply," the decision letter argues.
Prescott also points out that the county and district council's housing capacity studies have yet to be independently examined, leading to them being given limited weight in the decision. "A much clearer evidential base would be required to justify a significant change of course from the structure plan's 1998 strategy for delivering the amount of required housing," he insists.
The differences between the parties as to whether the site is sustainable are seemingly irreconcilable. Capner insists that West Stevenage is a sustainable location. The potential for excellent transport links to the rest of the town and its proximity to the town centre confirm its sustainability credentials, he maintains.
But Oliver counters that it is in completely the wrong place. "Stevenage was developed with the industrial and commercial sector on the west side of the town," he notes. "The A1(M) was then built and this application site lies on the other side of the motorway. If people think this will be a credible area, they are wrong. It will be very hard for this to be fully part of Stevenage."
"So what?" is Bandy's response to concerns about the motorway dividing the site from the town. "You can easily provide a link under the motorway," he points out. "This is more sustainable than almost any location in Hertfordshire. There will be good transport links and it is much closer to the town centre than the rest of the town."
Prescott's decision is not likely to be the end of the saga. The debate over the long-term growth of Stevenage, already identified as part of the M11 growth area, is at a pivotal point. The council has ambitious plans to transform the town into a regional centre with an urban extension and other regeneration initiatives.
This is supported in the RSS, which says that the Stevenage sub-area should cater for 14,400 homes via a westward and a potential northward expansion over the next 20 years. With Hertfordshire and North Hertfordshire vehemently opposed to this level of growth, the public examination will be crucial in determining how things pan out.
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE WEST STEVENAGE EXTENSION
1996: Report by Hertfordshire County Council floats idea of providing 5,000 homes west of Stevenage up to 2011 and another 5,000 beyond that.
1997: Draft structure plan examination endorses westward expansion into green belt. County council accepts recommendation.
1998: Urban extension policy adopted in structure plan. Deputy prime minister John Prescott voices no objection.
1999: By-election victory gives Conservatives overall control of county council, which subsequently withdraws from consortium promoting urban extension project. North Hertfordshire District Council also signals intention to withdraw.
2000: PPG3 revisions establish sequential approach to housing provision. Legal opinion is divided as to how this affects West Stevenage allocation. North Hertfordshire decides to withdraw draft local plan and carry out "rigorous" urban capacity study.
2001: House builders fail to secure judicial review of North Hertfordshire's withdrawal of local plan. Consortium submits planning applications for West Stevenage development.
2002: Deputy prime minister calls in applications.
2004: Public inquiry begins. Stevenage added to M11 growth corridor. Draft East of England Plan endorses growth strategy for Stevenage.
2005: Prescott announces that he is "minded to approve" 3,600 homes, but refuses 5,000 homes west of Stevenage. East of England Plan inquiry opens.