Analysis of WHBC response to WPAG regarding Singlers Marsh and Local Plan

During 2019, Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council (WHBC) ran a consultation process about all the sites that were being promoted for inclusion in the new Local Plan.  This Local Plan will indicate where 16,000 new homes can be built across the whole borough over a twenty-year period.  Several sites were promoted within/around Welwyn village by various developers, all of which were met with fierce resistance by local residents due to the major damage they would have on the character of the community were they to proceed.

Four of these sites (Wel 1, Wel 2, Wel 6 and Wel 15) survived the consultation process and were included in the draft proposal by the council’s officers that was published on 8th January 2020.  At that stage in the process, this proposal had not been considered by our elected councillors.

These four sites are on green belt land and would amount to around 250 new homes, running in an anticlockwise arc from Singlers Marsh to Hawbush.  The rural feel of that side of the village, not to mention the tranquil and countryside setting of the village cemetery, would be utterly changed if these sites were to be developed.  There would be knock-on effects of substantial extra traffic and noise on the whole area, as well as damaging consequences for the remaining open spaces and natural environment, including Singlers Marsh.

An even bigger shock to the community was the comment buried within the proposed plan, seemingly as a mere aside, about using part of Singlers Marsh itself to provide better road access to these new housing sites.

It was always obvious that these sites would need improved road access, both for the construction traffic and for their future residents (approximately 500 extra cars) to drive in and out of the area.  However, at no point during the 2019 consultation was any mention made of using anything other than the existing road network, let alone of using Singlers Marsh itself.  What was worse, it then became known that exploratory discussions about the possibility of buying the required chunk of Singlers Marsh from its landowner had already started.  The landowner in question is WHBC itself.

Had this possibility been included in the 2019 consultation, then arguments against developing on Singlers Marsh could have been put forward.  Singlers Marsh is a hugely popular and much used piece of open, semi-rural countryside.  It hosts a rare chalk stream (the Mimram), is designated both as an official wildlife site and a nature reserve, and contains significant archaeological remains relating to Welwyn’s Roman and pre-Roman history.  It is the focus of many of the community’s regular events throughout the year.

The first opportunity to raise residents’ strong concerns about the unadvertised possibility of developing on Singlers Marsh was at a public meeting of the WHBC Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel (CPPP), held on 23rd January 2020 for the councillors to consider the officers’ proposals for the Local Plan.  During a Q&A session at this CPPP meeting, a Welwyn councillor raised local residents’ concerns with WHBC’s head of planning about the proposal to provide better access to these four sites by using part of Singlers Marsh.  Mindful of Singlers Marsh’s natural environment, the question asked about what (if any) consultation had taken place with wildlife bodies prior to making this proposal.

Taking this question on the fly, without having prepared for it, the head of planning replied: “We would have consulted key ecological bodies – the Environment Agency, Natural England, and various others: Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust, Hertfordshire Ecology and other local bodies on our database.  And in terms of the regulatory and the statutory bodies (Environment Agency, Natural England side of things) there was nothing particular said that gave uscause that something couldn’t be done in that regard.

(If anyone is interested to see this exchange, a video recording of the entire meeting is available on the WHBC website.  The question is asked at 1 hour, 39 minutes into the recording; the answer starts at 1 hour, 42 minutes.)

WPAG, along with many others involved in the process, were not aware of any such consultations ever having occurred.  It seems likely that this was an accidental statement, an example of someone “mis-speaking”.  However, this statement was made on the public record, and created a real risk that it could influence future deliberations inappropriately.

In the short term, the various council meetings in January 2020 decided not to include these four sites in the new version of the Local Plan.  However, for various reasons they are currently now back in the mix, as the process has entered a new phase of its review.

WPAG’s first attempt to correct the public record was treated as a Freedom of Information request, leading to an unhelpful reply that merely directed us to the website that collated all the responses to previous consultations.  This we already knew well, and we learned little from the response.  The second attempt was to raise this concern as part of our contribution to the next consultation process later in 2020.  Sadly, WHBC chose to ignore this part of our contribution, simply offering no reply to it at all.  The third attempt has resulted in a response this week – it is a written question to another WHBC committee meeting, with a written response.  WHBC have kindly provided us advance notice of the response from their head of planning, and we have published it in a separate post here on our website.

This response is timely, as responses to the next phase of the review of the Local Plan are due by the end of this week.  The response is pretty long, and seems to make all sorts of justifications for the process that has been followed.  However, in the context of the original question and the answer that was given to it, this is a very clear retraction of the previous statement.

The original question asked about the consultations that WHBC had made regarding the use of part of Singlers Marsh to provide a new road access for these new housing sites.  It particularly asked about any consultations that had taken place with any wildlife bodies.  Let’s dissect the answer in the light of the new statement that has finally emerged:

“We would have consulted key ecological bodies – the Environment Agency, Natural England, and various others: Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust, Hertfordshire Ecology and other local bodies on our database.”

They now confirm that the only consultation about using Singlers Marsh land took place with Hertfordshire Ecology, not with any of these other bodies.  Moreover, this consultation took place not in 2019 when these four sites were being assessed, but in 2016 when there was no mention of using Singlers Marsh land in this way.

“And in terms of the regulatory and the statutory bodies (Environment Agency, Natural England side of things) there was nothing particular said that gave us cause that something couldn’t be done in that regard.”

There was indeed “nothing particular said that gave cause” for concern, because nothing was said at all by these bodies, because they were not asked about it, ever.

To conclude:

WHBC has now confirmed that the proposal to use Singlers Marsh land to build a new access road to service these four housing developments has never been consulted upon, particularly by any of the key ecological or environmental bodies that have a specific interest in maintaining its current status.

Singlers Marsh is a registered wildlife site, nature reserve and archaeological area.  It is host to a rare natural chalk stream, and is the only place along the Mimram’s length where it can be easily and freely accessed by the public.  It is also a heavily used and widely loved public amenity, host to many of the community’s events during its normal yearly cycle.

Any proposals to build on this land must take full account of the simple fact that no consultation about this has ever taken place.