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St Albans strategic plan scuppered by duty to cooperate verdict

Words: Huw Morris

The High Court has thrown out St Albans District Council’s strategic plan over a failure to fulfil its duty to cooperate with neighbouring authorities.

The council’s Strategic Local Plan (SLP), which identified four locations for housing development including the green belt, was submitted to the secretary of state last year. Inspector David Hogger recommended the plan should be withdrawn after objections from nearby councils.

They claimed that St Albans had not worked with them when planning to build the homes close to their infrastructure. St Albans says housing need in the district is 435 new homes a year with neighbouring authorities putting that figure at 710.

Hogger found “a lack of meaningful collaboration” and that St Albans’ “level of cooperation fell short of what is expected”.

In a High Court bid to quash the inspector’s decision, St Albans argued that it had discussed the area’s strategy housing market at length with other authorities but they had not agreed. Views had become “polarised” and the situation was “an impasse”, it claimed.

The judge backing the inspector, Sir Ross Cranston, accepted that the duty to cooperate is not a duty to agree. But whether or not there was agreement was “not determinative of the duty to cooperate”.

His conclusions were not “irrational” or “unlawful” and there was nothing wrong with the inspector expressing concerns about St Albans’ plan. The council had commissioned research into the housing market without inviting other authorities to take part, the judge noted.

Nine councils – Dacorum, Hertsmere, Three Rivers, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Central Bedfordshire and North Hertfordshire – were cited as “interested parties” in the case.

Mary Maynard, St Albans portfolio holder for planning, said: “We will take stock and reassess our approach, and we look forward to working with all our stakeholders, particularly our neighbouring councils. We want to make sure we achieve the very best outcomes for residents.

“This will include balancing the delivery of the right number of homes to meet the needs of our growing population, ensuring our business and retail community continue to thrive and protecting our precious green belt and green spaces.”

Richard Butler, an associate in planning at consultants Bidwells, commented: “This serves as a reminder to authorities preparing local plans that the duty to cooperate requires continual and effective dialogue with neighbouring authorities throughout plan preparation over cross-boundary matters. Indeed, this may further promote the trend seen in areas for authorities to join neighbours to produce joint plans. 

“There will inevitably be a need to identify more land for development and there simply is not enough previously developed land and non-green belt land within St Albans district for this to be met; a more comprehensive and effective review of green belt land will be required."

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