WELWYN PLANNING AND AMENITY GROUP
A.G.M. 5/10/11 – CHAIRMAN’S REPORT
On behalf of the committee a warm welcome to this the 37th Annual General Meeting of Welwyn Planning and Amenity Group.
To explain the reason for a somewhat less intimate venue, the Parish Offices, which we have used for many years is no longer available for public hire following some internal alterations.
As usual I will start with some background to our past 12 months work
2010/11 – A Year of Change with more to come
The dominant feature of the past year has been to keep abreast of the potential effects of new policies and legislation on development planning.
Ministers have published White Papers and draft legislation, such as the Localism Bill and most recently a National Planning Policy Framework, both of which propose fundamental changes to the powers of a local planning authority and its relationship with the community it serves.
Although there are some eye-catching headlines, cynics are already speculating that much of the promised devolution of responsibility to local communities will be diluted in practice. For example the requirement that the proposed new Neighbourhood Plans, (even if supported by another innovation a local referendum) must be approved by the local authority and in accordance with the authority’s Local Development Framework. In practice this will give our Borough Council the final say in any decisions on the future shape of Welwyn, regardless of possibly strong local support for a different solution. At a recent presentation of the Localism Bill to Welwyn Parish Council which we attended the Head of Planning at WHBC said that in the opinion of senior official planners nothing would change much.
So we must hope that some practical local benefits will emerge from all this legislation, despite the dire warnings about the potential risks of the proposed Planning Policy Framework – or ‘developers’ charter’ as its opponents are labelling it. Welwyn would be particularly at risk from any loosening of the Green Belt, or from any threat of development of the neighbouring and unprotected open land.
Our precious ‘green fingers’ surrounding the village centre, together with the river, are our lungs and the only physical features giving a credible claim to call Welwyn a village and not a suburb of W.G.C.
We may have to fight to protect them.
WHBC Housing Strategy
With this background it was useful that your committee was invited to take part in two WHBC consultations during the year
Firstly a Planning Policy workshop last November was intended to allow local people to put forward to planning policy officials the key issues that would be important in any development strategy for Welwyn. This gave us the opportunity to register the importance of more affordable housing, the need to sustain Welwyn’s economic vitality and local jobs and the importance of protecting both our open spaces and the historic character of the conservation area.
In July the committee debated and agreed on our formal response to the WHBC Housing Strategy consultation. You may remember that a series of 5 options for the growth of housing across the Borough over the period 2011 – 2031 were put up for comment. These targets ranged from a total of 2900 to 14,400 new homes to be built over the next 20 years.
Obviously the higher growth rates would bring greater problems in providing the infrastructure, traffic congestion, water and sewerage services, green belt erosion, carbon emissions etc. – some of which could bear heavily on Welwyn. We voted for Option 2 (the WHBC current level of building) but asked for a greater proportion of affordable housing within that target. Option 2 would mean a total of 5800 new homes by 2031 across the Borough, which we were told could be met by concentrating development in 2 new neighbourhoods close to WGC and Hatfield, with only small scale development in those villages that could support it.
Incidentally our Parish Council also voted for the same Option
I should mention that the Parish Plan Action Group hopes to launch a formal survey of Welwyn residents by a Housing Association in order to estimate the local demand for affordable housing over the next 5 years. This information could be of value in influencing WHBC Planning Policy housing strategy decisions for Welwyn.
We now await the publication, probably in early 2012, of the Borough’s Site Selections i.e. the specific locations identified to meet whichever of the 5 housing growth targets WHBC decides to adopt.
Only then we shall find out what is intended for Welwyn.
The second public consultation was to consider, among other landscape topics, the plans for a strategy for a ‘green corridor’ in WGC, including the Mimram valley down to Panshanger. We made a strong case for the inclusion of the protection of Singlers Marsh and the up-stream stretch of the river in any conservation policy and offered our services in drafting the detail. We await further news.
I mentioned the economic vitality of the village and this leads directly to the dire implications of the current WHBC proposal to impose parking charges in the High St. and Lockleys car parks, together with other restrictions.
I don’t need to describe the heated protest this proposal has generated since the news broke in a leak to the Welwyn Times in August (although WHBC Cabinet had taken the decision last January). The Parish Council has registered its total opposition to the scheme and set up a working party (of which I am a member) to organise the protests.
Apart from encouraging letters, pre-printed cards and e-mails to Borough officials and Councillors, you will probably be aware a petition with over 3000 signatures was delivered to the Mayor at the Campus offices 2 weeks ago – in a coffin in a hearse for maximum publicity.
Continuing if less spectacular protest is planned through October to focus Councillors’ and officials’on perceived legal and equality flaws in the plans..
The final decision is due to be taken by WHBC Planning and Housing Panel on Nov. 17th at a meeting open to the public. It has been proposed that this should be in Welwyn so that many local people can attend.
However things turn out it has shown that Welwyn people are capable of a rapid, coordinated and coherent response to a serious threat and has also raises the profile of the Parish Council.
How useful it would be if a fraction of this enthusiasm could be tapped for decisions on other matters important for the well-being of the village.
Some other local issues
Over the year the committee has been involved in several major decisions, some of which will be on going for a further year or two.
After nearly 3 years of uncertainty, an application to redevelop the site of the former Clock hotel has recently been approved. Several attempts to get permission for a care home were refused by WHBC, who have now agreed to the proposed 95 bed hotel.
We were fully involved with the Parish Council Planning Committee in considering the various proposals for this important site. Finally we wrote to the planners supporting the hotel proposal, which should make a useful addition to the choice of venues for business and social functions and we hope bring some employment and economic benefits to Welwyn, quite apart from removing the present eyesore when viewed from the A1(M)
An imminent outline application for a 200 dwelling re-development of The Frythe site also has our support after public presentations, a site visit and discussions with the developer. All the evidence suggests they are conscious of the importance of this site on the very edge of the village and making genuine efforts to take into account local concerns over issues such as the impact on traffic congestion. We hope that such a large development will count in our favour when WHBC long term plans for housing in the borough are finalised as mentioned earlier.
We were also pleased that 60 of the dwellings are to be affordable, which meets the boroughs target of 30%. We hope this figure will not be diluted when detailed applications are submitted.
Danesbury Hill House
By contrast we opposed an application to create a private drive up through the former golf course to serve Danesbury Hill House. We saw this as an inappropriate development in the green belt. The application was refused.
The problem of accommodating travellers is very much in the news. Welwyn also has a problem in the form of unauthorised use of green belt land and irregular use of property by travellers at a site in The Avenue. Caravans and horses are being kept without planning permission behind a house and tarmac strip laid to provide access, all without permission. Efforts by the Avenue Residents Association to get action from WHBC Planning Enforcement have been unsuccessful. A retrospective planning application has now been submitted to which strong objections have been made.
The underlying problem is that WHBC do not yet have a formal policy for the provision of travellers’ sites, which undermines their power to act.
This default makes it easier for the travellers’ advisors to get permissions
Singlers Marsh and the River Mimram
Finally I am pleased to report a useful consultation with Landscape and Ecology officials on the future of Singlers Marsh, which as you know is an official Local Nature Reserve, owned by the Borough and who are responsible for its maintenance.
Over many years the WPAG committee have argued with officials over their policies for the marsh, in particular the northern ‘wild’ section. We had concerns over the use of grazing, the reduced frequency of mowing and restricted public access not to mention the gradual invasion of nettles .
To cut a long story short, after considerable persuasion we managed to arrange a 3 way meeting last month with the officials, parish councillors and ourselves at which our criticisms were aired with a full discussion of other options, including the funding implications. The presence of the grazier to answer questions was useful.
We have now been promised a better balance of grazing and mowing with a target of restoring the northern section to the character of sustainable natural grassland over the next 2 years. Regrettably we were advised that, due to the effects of climate change and pollution the area could not be restored to the more diverse ecological variety of 15 years ago.
We have succeeded in shortening the management plan period from 5 to 2 years with a promise of full consultation at each review date. We also have an understanding that volunteer work in the marsh can now be organised, subject to basic health and safety measures already established with other volunteer groups. At this point I would like to thank Pat Lovell who joined the committee during the year and immediately threw himself (and us) into active consideration of ideas to encourage greater use and public benefit from visiting the marsh. In addition Pat has recruited a list of potential volunteer helpers, who following the meeting I have described, can now be organised and put to work.
Hopefully we can now look forward to a more open and productive relationship with officialdom to the benefit of the marsh and the community, but I know that vigilance and a readiness to hold officials to their undertakings must remain one of your committees’ prime responsibilities.
With regard to the River Mimram an on-going programme of improvements to the river is being led as always by Don Street, supported by the Friends of The Mimram, and has already started to show results. We are indebted to Don’s knowledgeable and energetic leadership in the face of any practical or organisational problems to improve the state of our important chalk stream.
That concludes my final report after 9 enjoyable and satisfying years.
Before ending I would like to pay tribute and thank two special members of the committee – firstly John Reay who, after many years both in the chair and recently as secretary has indicated he would like someone to give him a well earned rest . Thank you John for your unfailing support and advice which we are happy to know we will not be losing from the committee.
Secondly I would like to express appreciation on your behalf to someone who has at last persuaded us to permit her to retire from the committee after many many years of sterling work, including at least one if not two spells as chairman.
Nora Burnett was a founder member of WPAG in the dim and distant days when the threat of massive housing development of what is now Danesbury Nature Reserve was hanging over Welwyn. For more than 40 years, first with James and later flying solo, she has been a fund of local knowledge and a constant source of realistim and experience, good humour and friendship for which I and others have had cause to be grateful and we shall miss her.
The committee recently presented Nora with a gift as a token of our esteem and gratitude while wishing her a long and healthy retirement.
That concludes my report for the past year with my thanks for being such a patient audience.
If you have questions or points to raise there will be an opportunity in a few minutes in the Open Forum we are having as an alternative to a speaker.