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PINS details legal compliance concerns about St Albans plan

Words: Laura Edgar
St Albans / Shutterstock_638647627

The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) has outlined their concerns that St Albans District Council has failed to engage constructively when producing its local plan. 

Louise Crosby and Elaine Worthington think there is “a very strong likelihood” that the plan will need to be withdrawn from examination or they will recommend in their final report that the plan should not be adopted as it fails to meet the duty to cooperate.

In January, the inspectors wrote to the council explaining that they had “serious concerns in terms of legal compliance and soundness” about the draft plan, following initial hearing sessions earlier that month. The draft local plan was submitted for examination in March 2019. 

Now they have set out their concerns in detail. These say:

  • The council failed to engage constructively and actively with neighbouring authorities on the strategic matters of (a) the Radlett Strategic Rail Freight Interchange proposal, approved by the secretary of state in 2014, and (b) their ability to accommodate St Albans’ housing needs outside of the green belt.
  • The preparation of the plan was not in accordance with the council’s statement of community involvement.
  • There is inadequate evidence to support the council’s contention that exceptional circumstances exist to alter the boundaries of the green belt.
  • The sustainability appraisal fails to consider some seemingly credible and obvious reasonable alternatives to the policies and proposals of the plan.
  • It fails to meet objectively assessed needs.
  • There is an absence of key pieces of supporting evidence for the plan. 

The rail freight interchange site is proposed for housing in the draft plan as the Park Street Garden Village broad location. The rail freight interchange project is not identified as a strategic matter by the council because it is not a proposal included in the plan, according to the council.

The letter explains that the proposed alternative development of the garden village has the effect of precluding the rail freight interchange. “On this basis, the council considers that it did not need to cooperate in relation to this matter, since once the [rail freight interchange] ceased to be a strategic site promoted under the plan, it was no longer required to engage in the DtC discussions.”

For the inspectors, there is no evidence to demonstrate that other nearby authorities have been approached in terms of the possibilities of accommodating either the rail freight interchange or the housing now proposed on the site. 

“Overall, there is no evidence of effective joint working or cooperation on this important strategic cross-boundary matter regarding a nationally significant infrastructure scheme.”

Jamie Day, portfolio holder for planning at St Albans City and District Council, said: “The strategic rail freight interchange is a central feature in the feedback received from the inspectors. The council is in the unique position of having a government-permitted strategic rail freight terminal site actively promoted by the landowner for alternative housing use.

“Over recent years, the council has made improved efforts to work with its neighbouring councils and the county council to demonstrate its commitment to cooperating with our neighbouring authorities, so it’s disappointing to be called out by the inspectors on that point.”

Crosby and Worthington are also concerned about the council’s green belt studies. The government warned the council in 2017 and 2018 that it would face government intervention if it failed to deliver its local plan in a timely manner. Therefore, the council said, the latest of the council’s three main green belt studies was completed “swiftly”. The inspectors question whether adequate evidence has been provided to support the council’s view that exceptional circumstances exist to alter the boundaries of the district’s green belt.

Day said: “It’s extremely important that the council progresses this local plan so that it is able to manage the district’s growth in a sustainable and positive way. We are keen to deliver much-needed housing in sustainable locations, but our efforts to do so are curtailed somewhat by the complexities involved.

“We will be responding to the inspector’s letter to address the concerns raised. We had already engaged the Local Government Association to review the way that our planning department works and benchmark it against other local authorities to strengthen it for the future. But this review has been unavoidably delayed by the ongoing coronavirus control measures.” 

The council said it is considering how to respond, after which, the inspectors will reach a final position on the draft local plan.

The inspectors’ letter can be found here on the council website (pdf).

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