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Gove under pressure to clarify major development plans

Words: Huw Morris
Michael Gove

Two South East local authorities are putting pressure on the government to urgently reconsider major development plans and clarify the direction of planning policy.

The move follows prime minister Boris Johnson’s speech at the Conservative Party conference, which referred to future homes not being built on “green fields”. Levelling up and communities secretary Michael Gove is also pausing controversial planning reforms to introduce zones and reduce the public’s say on applications.

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council cancelled meetings of its cabinet planning and parking panel and a special council, scheduled for next week and 4 November, which were due to discuss its local plan. The council is seeking “urgent clarification” from Gove in the light of Johnson’s speech.

Meanwhile South Oxfordshire District Council members are calling on the government to pause the Oxford-Cambridge Arc amid “ongoing concerns over the damage excessive growth could have on communities throughout the region”.

Welwyn Hatfield’s six cabinet members have written to Gove asking what Johnson’s remarks mean for future planning policy and the potential impact on the council’s local plan, which a planning inspector has said should find sites for 15,200 homes.

"We have long expressed our resistance to over-development in the borough and made it clear that we feel a target of 15,200 homes for Welwyn Hatfield is too high,” said executive member for planning Stephen Boulton. “That is the expressed view of all political groups, and of our communities.

"We were intrigued by the prime minister's reference in his conference speech to not wanting to build on 'green fields', and we are now seeking the answer to two specific questions. Firstly, is there a possibility of further discussion on the target figure for new homes? And secondly, do the prime minister’s comments suggest a change to planning policy in the near future?

"The timing is far from ideal, but at such a crucial stage of the development of our plan we feel it would be irresponsible for us not to take the opportunity to seek such clarification before we proceed."

South Oxfordshire councillors are concerned that while the government consulted residents on a vision for the arc, it had already determined the main priority should be economic growth. They also claim the government made the decision “without asking residents, or even considering whether the arc project is necessary in the first place”.

The council’s leader, David Rouane, will write to Gove asking him to pause the arc project “to reflect on whether it would actually make a positive contribution to the government’s stated aim of ‘levelling up’ the UK”.

He will also ask Gove to set out his aims for the arc, including anticipated costs, projected housing, and growth expectations. 

Under the move, Rouane said local authorities within the arc area must be given the powers and funding “to enable landscape-scale nature restoration and world-leading environmental standards”. Local planning authorities should also set their own housing requirements based on local need.

“We know there are major concerns over the potential impact of the arc project and so will be asking the government to pause the project in order to properly consider its aims and potential impact,” Rouane added. “As we get closer to COP26, the government must show leadership in its actions on protecting the environment and tackling the climate emergency – pausing the Arc project and putting measures in place to prevent excessive growth with will be a significant step towards that.”

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