Astroturf Wont Protect the St Albans Green Belt

The St Albans Local Plan Saga, where members, on the casting vote of the Mayor. voted for a Green Belt review and review of housing need has taken an unfortunately partisan turn.

In a response to a front page piece in the Herts Advertiser a local Councillor, Dean Russell.  has set up as website ‘ what have you done’ purporting to express outrage at the decision as ‘threatening the green belt’, naming and shaming the cllrs and giving a mothpeice to the portfolio holder, Cllr Heritage,  who has written a post expressing much the same and trying to unpick the decision.

This is what americans would call astroturfing, a fake attempt to whip up grassroots outrage.  Well its about as fake as a citizens action campaign organised by Karl Rove.

I will completely ignore the finger wagging at opposition politicians, there is no place for this, all parties in office dating back 18 years are responsible for St Albans (after York) being the second most sluggerdely authority in the country and leaving its Green Belt this out of date and under threat without a sound plan to protect it.

Lets look at the specific claims that doing things properly with evidence and comparing alternatives is ‘putting the Green Belt at Risk’

Cllr Russell

Astroturf

What are the consequences of not passing the motion?

1. St Albans District is now vulnerable to planning appeals. This means the Council will spend increasing amounts of time (and therefore taxpayer money) to fight appeals with less chance of winning.

Reality

The plan had no chance of being found sound, when the inspector sat or she would have said so even without submitting a final report. this would have have ;eft the City desperately exposed on appeal.

Astroturf

2. The broad locations identified in the Plan, as have the Areas of Search (chosen by the Liberal Democrat Group several years ago) have been identified. They will continue to be under attack, despite the decision to pause the Plan and there will be no protection of them in policy terms. The Plan sought to provide guidelines as to what was acceptable to the Council.

Reality

Nonsense areas identified in a review whilst that review have not yet concluded have a presumption against development applying to innappopriate development within them according to the NPPF.  They have full protection.  However without a review all and every Green Belt site will be under threat as sonner or later an inspector will say that the Cit has not undertaken a review, does not have a plan that is up to date or advanced and in accordance with national policy.

Astroturf

3. St Albans District may now suffer in terms of infrastructure finance through the inability to progress CIL and through the reduced scope of S106 Agreements from 2014 onwards (even if this is pushed back, as suggested, to 2015). This will materially affect our ability to secure on- and off-site planning benefits, including affordable housing provision.

Reality

No chance of the plan as presented being found sound so this point is irreverent   The tough decisions should have been taken some time ago to hit this ‘deadline; but if the City now pulls its fimnger out it can still have an adopted and sound plan in early 2014

Astroturf

4. It is highly unlikely, perhaps impossible for St Albans District to meet the Government’s requirement of having an adopted Core Strategy/Local Plan in place by 2014. This is likely to reduce our ability, to defend applications on appeal (not just major housing sites but all types of proposals) as our policy basis would, by then, be 20 years old.

The Plan provided for a fundamental change in the delivery of affordable housing. With no Plan, or a delayed plan, we will have to wait longer to deliver much needed affordable provision.

Reality

Same point as above is the failure to produce a plan that can be found sound that is the problem.  The motion if passed would have delayed adoption of a sound plan by a year.

And Cllr Heritage (comments in brackets)

In response to Debbi White’s recent front page article in the Herts Advertiser, I draw to readers’ attention a few points and elucidate on some of the finer points that the article has missed.

  1. The Conservative group has been in administration since 2011. We have therefore been responsible for the Strategic Plan since that time only. We inherited the Plan in the form it is in now, from the Lib Dems, who had been working on it since 2006. [partisan matter not a material planning matter irrelevant to the decisions before the City,  A way ahead requires cross party agreement, this is not helping]
  2. In 2006 and 2009 the Lib Dem cabinet, upon which Cllrs Donald and Brazier sat, set out inter alia 8 Areas of Search, which highlighted those parts of the District’s Green Belt that were seen as developable. For Cllr Brazier to say that the current Plan is the reason the Green Belt is under pressure is disingenuous. Might I suggest that it was the Lib Dem administration that started the rot suggesting what might land might be available. Both the Lib Dems and Labour Groups have short memories. [this is rot the threat to the Green Belt is not having a sound and up to date plan, as suggested above a green belt review in no way threatens the ability to defend the sites in question]
  3. It was the Lib Dem administration in 2009 that took out various large and small scale sites, in the emerging Plan, in the north of the District, including Harpenden and Redbourn. Here is the link to all of the relevant consultation documents:  http://www.stalbans.gov.uk/planning/Planningpolicy/local-development-framework.aspx [Not relevant to future issues before the City]
  4. Harpenden and the villages to the north of the District have not been left out of the Plan either. Policies within it clearly reflect that development in the future would reflect current development patterns – ie Harpenden has received to date 20% of the District’s housing and will continue to do so. Like all urban areas in the District the character of Harpenden has been eroded over the years due to the intensified density of development. [only at the unrealistically low housing target which would not be found sound, the city cannot rely only on windfalls]
  5. Why didn’t the Lib Dem administration have a Green Belt Review when they started the work on the Core Strategy, ie at the beginning not at the end as they are now suggesting? The Green Belt has not changed its position. It is now under more pressure though, as developers are using up every single piece of brownfield that the District has, so it is even more precious and needs protecting. [So why not get on with one it has been delayed too long and the situation is now critical]
  6. Green Belt Reviews are used by planning authorities who want to take large amounts of  land out of the Green Belt. The Conservative administration has pledged to protect the Green Belt as much as it can. At no stage have we said that we would take any of the 3 broad locations out of the Green Belt. [no but they  have said that they would be built on contrary to national policy because the locations involve housing on none previously developed land which is inappropriate development in the Green. An inspector would say this is unsound and they should be taken out of the Green Belt.  So the administration s proposing a course of action which would see major Green Belt release, so they must do this properly and lawfully which is to consider alternative sites and whether they would harm Green Belt objectives and purposes less.   It may be that one of more of these sites show the 'exceptional circumstances' for release, but this needs to be weighed and balenced against the circumstances on other sites, in any event of course they fall well short of objective housing need]
  7. Residents told the previous Lib Dem administration that they wanted as few houses as possible built in the District.  As a Conservative administration we heard that and agreed.  That is why we have gone with the figure of 250 dwellings per year.  We have though improved the evidence base to prove such figure, unlike the Lib Dems.[The cat is out of the bag the aim is not to meet objectively identified housing need but build as few houses as possible, as will be evident from anyone who has read the 'evidence' which again does not meet national guidance.  The portfolios holders statement will be treated with delight by barristers acting for housebuilders - a gift from heaven].
  8. The Labour Group are on record as saying that they want lots of houses built. I do ask why, therefore, did Cllr Leach stand up and ask for a Green Belt review, to protect the Oaklands site! I think not! He and his group are fully aware what can befall a district once it holds a complete Green Belt review. [Not relevant to future issues before the City].
  9. I wonder too, why both the Lib Dem and Labour Groups have called for an Independent Commission to look into our housing need? Do they not trust the evidence that our officers have collected over the last 6 years, which has been available for public scrutiny all that timehttp://www.stalbans.gov.uk/planning/Planningpolicy/ldfevidencebase.aspx.  It is curious that the Lib Dems do not trust the evidence that they collected! [No objective observer trusts it, as the portfolio holder indicates above it has been written under political dictat and so officers could not be objective and indepdent, of course those officers who have been have left the council, repeatedly].
  10. Though not in your article, I know that I am quoted as ‘scaremongering’. I don’t think I am, I am being realistic. With the Plan on hold as it is at the moment, we are delaying the day that we can submit it to an inspector for an Independent Review; we are delaying the day that we can introduce a policy that will help us deliver more affordable housing; we are potentially loosing £1m of Community Infrastructure Levy for each year which it is held up which could be used to improve the local infrastructure and we will not have new and modern planning policies to protect our District. [The real harm to befall the City would be when the unsound plan was examined and when developers read with joy her blogpost - it is certain scaremongering]
  11. It is tough putting a Strategy such as this together and difficult decisions are required. I want to move this Plan onto the next stage, not go back 6 years. At Pre-submission consultation residents and developers will have the ability to say if they think the plan is sound and provide their evidence. I know that residents will want less and developers will want more. The Council will have an opportunity to review the results of the consultation and decide whether to submit to the Inspectorate. Council will be able to see all the arguments on soundness and choose to change its Plan or continue – but even then it will not know if the Inspectorate will like it. [if you want to move the plan on to the next stage of the work which a succession of officers over many years have suggested is necessary, otherwise as you have done you are moving the plan backwards and leaving the City at risk of appeal led development].
  12. I want to get the Plan to the Inspector to Examine in Public. I want to hear what he has to say about our evidence base. He is the professional. If the Plan is found unsound, well so be it, but let’s not waste time and money now on doing Reviews because local district politicians, who have no planning qualifications, and who take their advice from a planning blog say so. Let’s listen to our own planning and legal officers and advisors, both internally and externally, who consider our Plan to be sound enough now to take forward. Let’s wait for the Inspector’s report and then decide how to spend the scare resources we have to develop a Strategic Plan for the District. [The City has already heard from the Inspectors advisory visit previously, so why not listen or ask for another one.  Its not just me and not just my blog, anty objective planning expert would say the same.  It is rubbish to suggest their is objective legal advice.  Where is the published councils opinion, very common these days for the pre-submission plan.  Of course internal officers, after the experience of a legion of officers over 18 years know what to say to please or cannot state publicly what they have privately advised.]
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About andrew lainton

Uk Consultant

Posted on December 7, 2012, in urban planning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Andrew – this is not astroturf as you call it. In fact the site was not set-up in response to any article. The site (www.whathaveyoudone.org.uk) was set-up earlier in the week in response to my genuine belief that a flawed decision by Councillors has been made i.e. to halt a pre-submission which now opens up St Albans Green Belt (and more) to risk of development and extra taxpayers money/officers time.

    I think we can all agree the outcome, whether you are for-or-against it is of huge importance. I felt the public should know about this and urge all Councillors to work together to find a better solution as a matter of importance – not to leave it buried in the minutes of the Council meeting. If Councillors feel 100% comfortable they made the right decision – I don’t see why having their details on the site should be an issue.

    I do agree that party politics should not be played on such an important topic – hence my frustration that the first major article about the decision is simply finger pointing from opposition parties acting to divide the District. Not provide a true view of the consequences of the decision.

    Whilst I cannot hide my bias on this belief, you should also notice I put the name of ALL Councillors including one from my own party on the site. I don’t see how this is partisan.

    I also ask for facts to be provided on the website and healthy debate. I have happily included a link to your post in the comment too. I expect that will also create further discussion and will gladly accept any comments you want to make on there too.

    In summary – there is nothing fake about the site nor are the results of this decision. I want what is best for St Albans – I do not believe this decision has provided that. You may not agree – but calling the site fake does not moving the discussion forward.

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