A recent announcement by Ed Milliband, the Leader of the Labour Party, makes it clear that Labour planning policy poses a massive threat to the future of North Hertfordshire. He has recently announced that a new Labour Government, if elected, would rapidly move to fundamentally change the current development planning process to allow areas such as Luton and Stevenage (both of which he specifically mentioned) an unrestricted right to allow unlimited development in neighbouring areas, such as North Hertfordshire. This sort of change would lead to massive additional growth in the number of houses that would be allowed in North Hertfordshire. Such growth would be way beyond that which North Hertfordshire needs for its own purposes. Whilst any numbers are of course speculative at this time this might actually lead to an almost doubling of the number of houses in the District and would alter the shape of all our towns and rural communities beyond recognition. We accept that well-planned, sustainable growth is necessary. Unrestricted growth would change forever the nature of the District whilst doing nothing for our children.
Worse still, under Labour plans all of this could happen without giving North Hertfordshire residents a say in the process. North Hertfordshire Conservatives are fundamentally opposed to this suggestion and believe that we should have the right to determine what happens to development in our own District. We have the interests of North Hertfordshire residents at heart. We do not believe that these interests will matter at all to the Labour Councils in charge of Stevenage and Luton. We believe that North Hertfordshire houses and jobs should be primarily for the benefit of our own residents.
What follows is a brief guide to the current Local Plan process and illustrates why we think that this is the right approach both in democratic and planning terms.
The current Local Plan process
One of the responsibilities of NHDC is to periodically prepare a local development plan which sets out how it expects to deal with changes in the District over the medium to long term, typically twenty years. These changes are primarily brought about by changes in both the number of people living in the District and by the changing age profile of that population. The plan will look at such things as where new housing needs to be provided and where it is possible to allocate land for employment uses. What new infrastructure (roads, sewage works) may be required and what the social needs may be (new schools and hospitals for instance).
The most important point about a local plan is that it has to be evidenced based. That is to say that it has to take into account the best possible evidence about how the population will change and how demand for housing and businesses etc. in the District will cope with these changes.
The current local plan is now significantly out of date being prepared in 1996. Much of the delay in updating this vital document comes down to the previous government’s wish to deal with planning matters at a regional level and to insist that local authorities comply with plans drawn up by unelected regional bodies.
The current government has reversed all of the legislation surrounding regional planning and has reverted to the situation where local authorities (in our case NHDC) are charged with drawing up and delivering these plans. The current situation is that NHDC is actively engaged in drawing up a plan which will take us through until 2031 (although it will be subject to on-going review during this period).
The first steps in the process have taken up the last couple of years and has seen the Council carry out detailed investigations into future population trends based on census data and the current availability of both land for housing and employment uses. Full details of this research and the results can be found on the NHDC website.
The result of this work is that it is estimated that over the period until 2031 the population of North Hertfordshire will increase by around 25%. This is due to several factors some of which are as follows
People are living a lot longer these days
Birth rate is increasing in certain sectors of the population
More people are moving into the District from areas around us, such as north London, as the District is seen as a good and cheaper place to live.
NHDC has to plan to cope with these changes to ensure that authority can deliver the services that these new residents will need.
At the same time we are experiencing changes in the make-up of the population with people living longer, more single person homes etc. also leading to increased demand on the number of houses and associated facilities required.
Adding to the problems of NHDC is the fact that government requires that when we draw up our plans we also have to take into account at least part of the housing requirements of our neighbours, in our case specifically Luton and Stevenage. NHDC accepts that is reasonable to make some allowances for growth in these areas as they are urban settlements with very little room for growth within their own boundaries. We are working very closely with the two Councils to see what level of growth it is reasonable for NHDC to allow for.
At the time of writing (February 2014) the process of developing the plan is well advanced but by no means finalised. What is clear however already is that the Council is going to have to take some very difficult decisions as there is no way that the required level of increase can be accommodated within the existing settlements. Indeed, probably only a quarter of the number of houses likely to be required can be provided in this manner. This means that the Council is obliged to find sites outside the boundaries of most of our current settlements to accommodate this level of growth. This in turn means that we will have to allow some of the required development to take place on sites that are currently identified as Green Belt. Compensatory changes will however be made to the designated Green Belt areas that surround the newly extended settlements.
NHDC Councillors remain convinced however that we can come up with evidence based, sustainable development plans which are in the best interests of our residents, which provide the necessary homes jobs and infrastructure, and allow us to properly plan for the required population increases without fundamentally changing the nature of our District.