Building on the Hertfordshire Green Belt

Letter to The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP from Daisy Cooper, MP for St Albans; Cllr Chris White, Leader, St Albans District Council; and Cllr Sarah Nelmes, Leader, Three Rivers District Council


The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP
Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Fry Building
2 Marsham Street London
SW1P 4DF

31 August 2021
Case Ref: DC16862

Dear The Rt Hon Jenrick,

Building on the Hertfordshire Green Belt

We are writing to express our dismay at the Government’s recent response to a parliamentary written question, the misrepresentation of the powers that local authorities have and the failure to acknowledge the impact of government planning policy and the use of out-of-date data on Hertfordshire’s Green belt.

Green belt isn't just a nice to have: it is a vital resource that provides habitats for wildlife, agricultural use, local food, relaxation and fresh air, not to mention its original purpose of preventing urban sprawl. The government claims that it too wants to protect the greenbelt but your government’s planning policies directly undermine it.

Hertfordshire Liberal Democrats know that people are struggling to afford good homes in in the right location, that house prices are too high, and that the possibility of owning a home seems remote for many people. We know that the private rental market is expensive and insecure and that there are not enough homes for social rent to meet demand. We know that the country needs to build more homes, but the government’s approach isn’t working.

In the Ministerial response to my written parliamentary question UIN170744, I was alarmed to read the assertion that: "Councils decide their own housing target once they have taken account of local constraints (such as Green Belt) that prevent it from allocating enough sites to meet need."

I was further alarmed to read the assertion that: "To help enable England to deliver 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, in December we changed the formula for assessing local housing need to increase need in our 20 most populated urban areas following consultation. There were no changes to the approach in Hertfordshire and so local housing need will continue to be calculated in the same way they had been previously."

First of all, it is absolutely clear that councils do not decide their own housing targets. Government imposed housing targets have been forced onto local communities and it means that neither Three Rivers District Council nor St Albans District Council have any choice but to offer up sites in their local plan that are on the Green Belt.

Three Rivers District Council has done everything it can to try and locate brownfield sites but the increased pressure by your department, will mean green belt sites being potentially sacrificed to comply with the methodology. To make matters worse, having met with the Bedmond Residents Association, it is abundantly clear that increasing housing targets to an unsuitable level will not provide the homes that are needed, but will instead threaten areas of biodiversity and overlook environmentally friendly housing options. The targets give the green light to unscrupulous developers looking to maximise profit rather than find solutions collaboratively with local residents and councillors that meet local housing need.

St Albans District Council has also fallen foul to these ludicrous Government housing targets. The Government has ordered 14,608 new homes to be built in St Albans by 2036 – along with a major strategic rail freight terminal the size of 490 football pitches. There is brownfield space for about 5,000 of these homes in the district; space for around 10,000 homes, along with the strategic rail freight terminal, will have to be found on Green Belt land.

It is misleading to insist that the housing calculation is "not a target". In practice, because of the National Planning Policy Framework, the calculated figure is used by the Planning Inspectorate to (1) approve local plans via the public inquiry process and (2) decide appeals against refusal of planning permission.

In theory councils can argue 'exceptional circumstances' to avoid the target, but having only greenbelt land available doesn't count as exceptional. The second reason means that despite a council turning down permission for building in the green belt, the Planning Inspectorate can and will overturn that and give permission on appeal where a council cannot show it is on track to meet the figure according to the standard calculation.

Indeed just recently, the planning inspectorate gave the go ahead for one hundred homes to be built on green belt land between St Albans and Welwyn Hatfield, on appeal. This was despite opposition from local residents and both of those areas planning authorities. It is extraordinary that this appeal was allowed on protected Green Belt land.

When reaching their decision, the Inspectorate gave more weight to the requirement - set by you as Secretary of State - that local authorities build more homes, regardless of the green belt and suitability of the sites.

While the Government suggests that these numbers are “targets” the guidance clearly states that councils have to work within the “standard methodology” framework. Tragically if planning departments do not comply, the planning inspectorate has the ability to override local objections and grant planning permission regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.

A central Government body favouring crude targets over local concern is an egregious attack on local democracy and makes residents feel powerless on how they want their communities to develop. The proposed planning reforms introduced in the Planning White paper will only go further to dilute community input and will see more housing being built on green spaces. If we want to increase housing we need to start with the one million homes that have planning permission approved but have yet to be built. Currently, there is a considerable democratic deficit with the planning system and further “command and control” from the centre threatens local flexibility and innovation.

If this government means what it says about the calculation being only a starting point and 'not a target', then we call on you to urgently update the NPPF to remove the ability of the Planning Inspectorate to use the standard calculation in assessing local plans and in deciding planning appeals.

Finally, whilst it is, in fact, true that the calculations for Hertfordshire have not changed, the government did however issue a consultation last year about updating the calculation to use the more up-to-date data. This would have reduced local housing targets in Three Rivers District Council, but would have singled out St Albans District Council as the only area in Hertfordshire that would have had a further increase.

In light of the fact that both Three Rivers District and St Albans District will need to build thousands of homes on the greenbelt to meet centrally set targets, we would request that if the government insist on using this standard methodology, that it introduces a limit on how many homes should be built on greenbelt and that any excess be allocated to areas without greenbelt.

Additionally, at the very least, it should allow Three Rivers to use the most up to date census data. This will at least potentially reduce the number of houses to a more manageable number for Three Rivers District Council.

In summary, we request that:

  • The government urgently update the NPPF to reflect its position that housing calculations are 'only a starting point' and 'not a target', by removing the ability of the Planning Inspectorate to use the standard calculation in assessing local plans and in deciding planning appeals
  • If the government insist on using the standard housing calculation methodology, that it introduces a limit on how many homes should be built on greenbelt and that any excess be allocated to areas without greenbelt
  • Failing that, permit Three Rivers District Council to use the most up to date census data for its housing calculations. This will at least potentially reduce the number of houses to a more manageable number
  • Set out what other measures the government intends to take to enable local authorities and communities to protect the Green Belt in Hertfordshire

Yours sincerely

Daisy Cooper, MP for St Albans
Cllr Chris White, Leader, St Albans District Council
Cllr Sarah Nelmes, Leader, Three Rivers District Council