Village Meeting - 7.30 pm, 5 December 2017, Watton-at-Stone School
Summary of the position of the Watton at Stone Neighbourhood Plan Steering Committee
Following an announcement at the village meeting on 5 December, the Steering Committee makes the following summary:
We have decided not to continue our work to make a firm recommendation to EHDC about the release of green belt land in Watton at Stone for development.
This conclusion has been reached in light of the following:
• As the EHDC Local Plan Examiner has highlighted, we do not have the legal power to take this decision, which the NPPF places at district council level;
• EHDC might take our views into account but cannot fetter its discretion on the issue by making any commitment to follow our recommendation;
• There are two main candidate plots of land which we believe to be deliverable but there is no front runner between the two plots – both have very different pros and cons when considered from the perspective of (i) the physical characteristics of the land, (ii) the identity of the potential developer and (iii) the potential of the plots to contribute to wider sustainability objectives and the delivery of community benefits;
• We believe the owner/option holder of both plots are keen to proceed with development and are therefore conscious that a recommendation of one plot over the other could be challenged by the other landowner/developer;
• It has not proved possible to obtain a professional review of the individual merits of the two green belt plots (without incurring considerable expense)*. Without such a report, we consider that our evidence base would be insufficiently robust;
• Despite focusing on this issue for almost two years, we have struggled to make headway, apart from gathering local opinion; and
• Time spent on the complexities of the green belt issue is at the expense of the core objective of our neighbourhood plan, which is to establish local policies for development in our parish.
Given our limited resources and difficulties in progressing the green belt issue, we have decided to put it to one side, in order to focus on finishing drawing up a neighbourhood plan comprising locally driven policies applicable to any development (with the possibility of additional plot-specific policies which could relate to either of the two candidate green belt plots). We believe that this is the most effective way for us to use our limited volunteer resources to generate maximum positive impact on future development in the village.
We will not abandon the work done so far on the green belt issue, but will incorporate it into our conclusions and policies in the neighbourhood plan. We will continue to liaise with the landowner/option holder of the lead candidate plots. We will actively engage with any later EHDC consultation on green belt release in the parish.
* We took steps to obtain a professional assessment of the candidate green belt plots, to supplement the evidence about the wishes of the village which has already been collected. Locality put us in touch with the AECOM scheme. We were told that we were a complex case and were entitled to professional support from AECOM to build our evidence base, free of charge. With the balancing test originally proposed by EHDC in mind (green belt contribution on the one hand; community benefits on the other), we requested two pieces of work from AECOM: a detailed evaluation of the contribution to green belt objectives of the various individual parcels of land around the village which might be suitable for green belt release, and a second piece of work looking at what each plot of land might generate in terms of CIL or s106 monies, so that we could identify which plot would be capable of generating the community benefits which the village would like.
AECOM's neighbourhood plan work is based on various predetermined templates. They were initially surprised that we were asking them for detailed green belt assessment, on the basis that there was no legal basis for this to be done at neighbourhood plan level and so it didn’t fit within their templates. But we understand that they reverted to EHDC and discussed this query with them, and then agreed to proceed.
A draft AECOM green belt report was received after a number of months of waiting. However, it fell a long way short of what we were expecting, and basically summarised past work on the green belt issue, with minimal new assessment. In fact it recommended, as a next step, that a detailed green belt assessment of the individual plots should be prepared. When we pointed out that this is what we thought we had asked them to prepare, AECOM came back and said, essentially, that they could not prepare such a report for us since green belt release does not fall within the remit of neighbourhood plan groups. This was a very frustrating outcome.
The second piece of work on potential benefits from the various plots was not drafted.
East Herts District Plan Examination - October 2017
The East Herts District Plan is currently undergoing examination. Christine Thorby DIPTP MRTPI IHBC is the Inspector. As part of this process, Ms Thorby has made a comment that in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework, Neighbourhood Plans can not alter green belt boundaries.
As our Neighbourhood Plan has been given this responsibility by East Herts District Council, our Steering Group met with Chris Butcher from the planning team at EHDC to discuss the impact of this on our Plan.
Mr Butcher said that EHDC will not object to the comment. In EHDC's response to the Inspector they will acknowledge that an amendment is needed to the District Plan, saying that EHDC will look to review the Green Belt if EHDC has the support of a Neighbourhood Plan. Mr Butcher said that EHDC will work with Neighbourhood Planning Groups regarding Green Belt sites or number of units.
EHDC still does not intend to specify a number of units for the Green Belt villages, when making the amendment.
It is likely that the Inspector will produce a report expressing her views on this, and on the wider District Plan, in Spring 2018. In the interim, the Watton-at-Stone Neighbourhood Plan group will continue to work on preparing an evidence base to inform any Green Belt recommendations it may decide to make.