(Ed. The following analysis was prepared by Ian Skidmore for the Welwyn Parish Plan Group, who worked with WPAG and the WPC as members of a Local Plan Working Group, formed for this purpose. Maps have been added to refresh memories.)
This document is a response to the Consultation on Proposed Changes to the submitted Draft Local Plan 2016 (Site Allocations) 2020. It is submitted by the Welwyn Parish Plan Group.
The Draft Local Plan was submitted in May 2017 and has been reviewed for soundness and legality in several stages by the Inspector. His analysis noted that the Plan as submitted did not meet the full objectively assessed need (OAN) for housing. He was, among other things, concerned that if housing growth did not keep pace with projected growth of employment in the Borough there would be excessive inward commuting. (WH is already a significant employment magnet).
The housing numbers on which the Plan was based were out of date at 12000 and based on further analysis the target figure should be 16000. There have been arguments and counter-arguments about the accuracy of this figure, which leads to an annual building rate of 800pa, but the borough’s independent consultants believe it to be the right figure within the accuracy limits that forward projections carry..
On the basis of this the Planning Department created a series of options for the Council to consider, with their recommended strategy delivering 15952 houses, 48 under target, and a shortfall of 1.63Ha in employment land. This included all the sites from the 2016 submission plus 36 additional sites none of which, with the exception of a school site in Welham Green was considered to be high harm to the Green Belt.
The Council Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel (CPPP) did not accept this option nor any of the other 3 options presented and recommended to Council a reduction to a lower figure of 14206 units. Cabinet approved this figure. The changes to the original Draft that this figure represents is the subject of this consultation.
The primary basis for the lower figure is the removal of sites from the original Plan that were considered to be moderate to high or high harm to the Green Belt and ensuring that none of the added sites fell into these categories. There is no technical justification for this lower figure and it clearly falls significantly short of the OAN
As with previous consultations our understanding is that the focus of this consultation is on Soundness and Legality alone.
Soundness: There are four tests of soundness:
Has the Plan been positively prepared, is it based on a strategy which seeks to meet the objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirements and is it consistent with achieving sustainable development?
(The revised NPPF, 2019, says the target should be as a minimum the OAN but this may not apply strictly to WH which started its Plan process several years ago under NPPF 2012) that states that it should meet the OAN.
Is the Plan justified, is it an appropriate strategy based on proportionate evidence?
Is it effective, can it be delivered over the Plan period?
Is it consistent with national policy, enabling sustainable development consistent with NPPF?
This covers Community Involvement, Compliance with the Local Development Scheme, Duty to cooperate with adjoining authorities, conformity with Town and Country planning regulations, Sustainability and Habitat protection.
Welwyn Parish: Comments on the 2016 Draft Plan.
The Parish Council commented on the soundness of the proposals in 2016 for inclusion and exclusion of sites in the Parish for the Draft Plan. The Parish Plan Group was involved in formulating these comments and endorsed them. They are summarised as follows:
Of the 5 sites proposed none was included in the Plan, it was our opinion then and remains now that the rejection of all Digswell sites was legal and based on sound reasoning. No Digswell sites appear in the 2020 revision.
Our view was then and remains that, with the exception of the Traveller site, GTLAA04 the decisions taken were sound and legal . Thus OMH6, and OMH7 were rejected for sound NPPF reasons relating to the Green Belt. OMH 5 and OMH 8 passed the HELAA stages and were proposed in the Plan. They remain in the revised Plan in 2020 and we agree with this.
In 2016 we considered that the Plan was legally compliant and sound.
The following summarises our comments then and we have no reason to change our view.
Wel1 The Borough rejected this site and the adjacent Wel 2 and Wel15 sites for several reasons although they passed the HELAA Phases. They should be considered together (Housing Site Selection-Background Paper Appendix E). Most importantly the expansion of the green belt boundary would lead to ribbon development between Welwyn and Codicote; one of the prime purposes of the green belt is to prevent such coalescence (NPPF 2012 para 80). There are serious issues with access, requiring a new bridge and widening of a rural road with effects on a designated wildlife site (WS5) and an LNR and there is potential for flooding. The site topography is open and housing on this site would dominate the landscape
Wel5, the “school reserve site” was rejected at HELAA Phase 1 as it was impossible to achieve access. HELAA 2016, Appendix D).
Wel 6, 8, 9, 10,12,13 were all rejected at HELAA Phase 1. They were all in the green belt and neither in, nor contiguous with, a settlement bounded by the green belt boundary (HELAA 2016, Appendix D) and thus were contrary to NPPF (para 80 2012 version).
Wel14. Because of access issues this site would only be viable in conjunction with Wel 1 and Wel 2 and the reasons for rejecting it mirror those for the other two sites (HELAA 2016, Appendix G).
Wel16. Access to this site is via a village road that is mainly single lane with poor pedestrian provision and with a pinch point that cannot be modified. (See Highways comment in HELAA 2016, Appendix G). Emergency access via single-track roads would be problematic. The connection with the existing settlement of Welwyn is tenuous.
We considered these decisions to be sound and legally compliant..
Wel3; Previously developed land, (Affinity Water Site). Three houses have already been built on this site and the plan was for 7 more, a total of 10. Assessment suggests there are no unmanageable constraints to developing this site. (HELAA2016, Appendix E)
Wel 4. This partially-developed site would extend the green belt boundary to the A1(M) junction 6 northbound exit slip road, which is a good permanent boundary. The borough resisted extending the site further to the southwest to maintain a significant and defendable gap between Welwyn and Welwyn Garden City. (HELAA2016, Appendix E). There is excellent public transport connectivity.
Wel 11. This site, part previously developed land, would have moderate to strong green belt boundaries. There would be some loss of openness. Good access to public transport. (HELAA2016, Appendix E). Traffic sightlines would need to be managed.
We considered these decisions to be sound and legally compliant..
2019 Call for sites.
Following the Call for Sites in 2019 WHBC employed a four-stage process to determine which sites could be considered suitable for development.
HELAA stage 1, HELAA stage 2 and for those sites passing HELAA stage 2, and therefore comprising a shortlist, a detailed assessment of suitability using a variety of criteria. This shortlist was then examined first in a detailed analysis of the individual sites and then assessed at the settlement level, that is the effect on the overall settlement of those sites that were still under consideration.
HELAA provides information on the range of sites that are, in principle, suitable, available and achievable to meet development needs. It is for the subsequent development plan process to determine which of those sites are the most suitable to meet those needs. Green Belt policy and other considerations are not dealt with during HELAA.
4 sites were reintroduced from the 2016 list all of which had been rejected at that time. In 2019 Dig 3 and Dig 5 failed at stage 1 of HELAA, Dig 1 and Dig 4 at stage 2. Thus no sites progressed to further assessment. We consider these decisions to be sound.
3 sites were assessed; OMH 6 failed at stage 2, OMH7 and OMH 9 passed stage 2 and so were taken forward to site assessment.
The sites considered were Wel 1, 2, 6,14, 14a, 14b, 15, 15a, 16 and 17, plus an unnumbered site north of Tudor Road. This last was rejected outright as being below the size for consideration. Of these Wel1, 2, 6, 14, 15, and 16 were sites previously rejected in the 2016 analysis 14a, 14b, 15a and 17 were new proposals.
HELAA stage 1:
All sites with the exception of Wel17 passed HELAA stage 1. Wel17 failed this stage because it is not contiguous with a Green Belt boundary. While it adjoins the Frythe, also outside the Green Belt boundary, development of that site was permitted as the site was brownfield. It is still washed over by the green belt and does not at any point adjoin a green belt boundary. This decision therefore is consistent with NPPF and therefore sound and legal.
HELAA Stage 2:
Wel 14, 14a and 15a failed stage 2.
Wel14: This site was assessed as unsuitable for development in 2016 due to the negative impact on nearby Heritage Sites, ie Grade 2 listed buildings at Linces farm. There was also uncertainty about the availability of at least part of the site and achievability was uncertain because of access problems. The new proposal in 2019 reduced the size of the site and this part does not have availability problems and could be developed immediately. However the heritage issues remain and WHBC conservation advisors agree with Historic England. Primarily because of the heritage aspects WH consider the site unsuitable for development. We concur with this view and consider the decision to be sound.
Wel14a: The WH analysis notes that the physical constraints on this site are primarily access. Without the development of Wel14, rejected as above, or 14b, see later, access would be impossible. Highways noted that in any case Kimpton Road is too narrow for pedestrian access and expressed concern about access via School Lane. Thames Water indicated that upgrades to drainage would be needed in advance of any development. The heritage issues for 14 also apply here. WH determined this site to be unsuitable for development. We agree with this decision and consider it to be sound.
Wel15a: This is land at Fulling Mill Lane, south of Riverside. This is at risk of flooding. Highways point out that on its own it is not viable given the necessary improvements at Singlers Bridge that would be needed. Thames Water notes that waste-water capacity would need an upgrade. There are serious heritage concerns, Guessens and the Manor House, and the site is in AAS7 about which there is currently very little information.
WH considers 15a to be unsuitable for development. We agree with this opinion and believe it to be sound
Wel 1, 2, 6, 14b, 15 and 16 passed HELAA stage 2 and went forward to detailed assessment.
Wel 1 and 2 were previously assessed in the HELAA in 2016 and the 2019 site selection provides an update but little new information.
Wel1. The 2016 HELAA noted the obvious physical constraints of access, the need to build a new bridge and widen Fulling Mill Lane at the expense of Singlers Marsh owned by WHBC. Proposed entry to the site would be from a new road parallel to Kimpton Road. Waste-water capacity upgrade would be needed. Historic England is concerned about effects on views out from the Conservation area. Nature Reserve and wildlife sites( WS5 and WS19) would be affected. The site is within AAS7. Site is located within a Groundwater Source Protection Zone.
Overall in 2016 this site was classified as available, with uncertain achievability, deliverability 6-15 years. The 2019 HELAA adds nothing significant to this.
Wel 2. Wel 2 has very similar issues to Wel 1. Access to the site would be from Fulling Mill Lane. The document suggests that there would be access to Wel1 from Wel 2 but there is no physical connection between the sites to allow this. Access to Wel 15 is possible from Wel2 but there is still no connectivity with Wel 1. Similar issues with road widening and Singlers bridge. WS 5 and WS 19 and AAS 7 are also affected. Waste-water network would require upgrading
Overall assessment: Available, achievability uncertain, timescale 6-15 years.
The 2019 HELAA adds nothing of significance
Wel 6. Wel 6 was not considered in 2016. The 2019 HELAA has a detailed assessment. Access would be from Kimpton Road, this is too narrow for pedestrian access. Environmental Health notes the potential for contamination issues within 200m (gravel extraction and engine testing site?) Site is inside the inner Groundwater Protection Zone. The area backs onto the garden of a grade 2 listed building on Fulling Mill Lane.
The adjacent land is in North Herts and is not proposed for allocation in the North Herts Local Plan, currently under examination. That area is not contiguous with a green belt boundary and so is not developable under NPPF.
This site is considered available but achievable only with extensive highways upgrades associated with Wel 1 and 2 and if it is practical to create access for pedestrians and cyclists which would require upgrades to Kimpton Road. This site is not viable on its own. Delivery timescale 6-10/11-15 years.
Wel14b: This was also not considered in 2016 as it had not been brought forward. Access is proposed via School Lane that has a pinch point at the High Street junction with a listed building creating a single lane road. Alternative access is proposed from Kimpton Road but this would require development of Wel 14 and 14a, both of which are considered by WH to be unsuitable for development. The report is suggests that at this stage (HELAA) the potential for some development in the southern part of the site might be feasible, ie not as far up as Wel 14a.
They classify the site as: suitable (limited, lower part only), available and achievable with a deliverability timescale of 1-5 years subject to waste-water network upgrades. We challenge this assessment because of fundamental access problems. These also apply to Wel16, see below.
Wel15: While Wel15a is considered in HELAA 2019 this site was reviewed in HELAA 2016. There is no access directly from Fulling Mill lane owing to landownership issues so access would have to be via Wel 2 and Wel 1 with which it is being co-promoted. The same road and bridge issues arise therefore for this site. The site is within AAS7 and there is evidence suggesting that this was the site of the roman settlement. Detailed study would be needed before submitting planning applications. Given that the southern part of 15a was rejected because of historic buildings above ground we argue for a detailed archaeological survey and a block on development if anything really significant (cf Welwyn roman baths) is found. The site also adjoins the Welwyn Conservation Area and WH thinks any development should be limited to the eastern part of the site, between Riverside and the Evangelical church, to minimise effects on this Area. This would reduce capacity from 45 to 14 units.
WH rated the site, without 15a, as suitable, and available but with uncertain achievability and an uncertain timescale 6-15 years.
Wel16: Wel16 was in the 2016 HELAA as a much larger site with a capacity of 250 units. It was assessed then as unsuitable and unachievable. Primary concerns were for access. It was reintroduced as a smaller site in 2019 reduced from 10ha to 3.3 ha and 95 units. There are still serious access issues via School Lane/Ayot St Peters Road and Whitehill.
The topography of the site is difficult, steep and with the risk of water run-off.
The site is in a groundwater protection zone. Waste-water network will need upgrading. (timescale 1-3 years.
The archaeological significance of the area is high and assessment would be needed in advance of any planning application.
WH considered Wel16 to be suitable, available and achievable in a 1-5 year timescale. We challenge this assessment of suitability as we consider access for a further 95 dwellings via a single-lane pinch point and single-lane rural roads to be impractical . This of course would be exacerbated by any development of Wel14b.
The HELAA exercises are solely about suitability of the sites, their achievability and their deliverability. They do not consider any other factors, perhaps most importantly the Green Belt or their overall effects on the settlements to which they would belong if developed.
Site Selection Assessment:
For this process only those sites that passed stage 2 of the HELAA 2019 were considered. The HELAA findings are summarised but the focus is on six things:
Green Belt Study Review
Green belt Boundary Appraisal
Strategic Advantages and Disadvantages.
Green Gap policies
Green Belt Review:
The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence. (NPPF para 133).
As far as Welwyn Parish is concerned purposes 3 and 4 are key. NPPF refers to towns but in fact it means any settlement that is excluded from the Green Belt, be it town or village.
While neither OMH7 or OMH9 is of high harm their geographical location to the west of the A1(M) would mean a breach of the very strong green belt boundary that the motorway creates and the additional 14 units in total that these two sites would deliver does not represent exceptional circumstances that that resetting the boundary would entail. Thus these sites were rejected at this stage. We concur and agree that exceptional circumstances do not exist.
The site is contiguous with the green belt boundary at Hawbush and Glebe Road so this is not a barrier to development under NPPF. The site as a single unit does not contribute to preventing the merging of towns (WGC and Harpenden). It does however make a significant contribution to preventing encroachment on the countryside. In particular it would destroy the countryside vista from this boundary. In addition it would enclose in the Mimram valley.
Assessment of the whole parcel of which this is part (P7) is moderate /high harm. Similarly, development of P7a, (Wel 1, 2 and 15 ) is considered moderate/high harm. The report concludes that these three Stage 2 sites in combination or isolation would lead to encroachment of the countryside to the south east and south west
Any new green belt boundary would be significantly weaker than the current one. As noted above this is defined by the perimeter of Hawbush and Glebe Road and was drawn tightly round the existing village when the boundary was established. Wel 2 is not contiguous with the current boundary but is linked via Wel15. This would mean that if Wel15 was not developed Wel 2 could not be developed. This emphasises the focus of developers on all three sites and on our contention that the overall harm to the green belt of the three sites (4 with Wel6) combined should be assessed rather than assessing them for possible effect as single sites.
The Sustainability Appraisal is slightly in favour but it is difficult determine what leads to this assessment.
A circular argument is presented that developing Wel 1, 2 and 15 would enable the highways improvements and bridge building that developing these sites would require. The Council needs to look carefully at the logic of this argument..
The overall conclusion is that development of the whole parcel P7a taking it out of the green belt would cause moderate /high harm. However, they use the circular argument above to say it would be a good thing and that the new green belt boundary would be similar in strength to the existing one. Thus the site is suitable for allocation on green belt grounds. We strongly disagree with this and suggest that the three sites together would cause high harm to the green belt. Implications for any Green Gap Policies must also be taken into consideration, see below.
Much of what applies to Wel 1 applies here but as it is not contiguous with the green belt boundary it would depend on the development of Wel15 to proceed, see above. The borough note that Wel 15 makes a significant contribution to two national green belt policies, P3, safeguarding from encroachment and P4 preserving the setting and special character of historic towns (and villages!). In addition it is noted that currently the physical openness of the site is high. The assessment of harm to the green belt is assessed as moderate /high, we consider the potential harm to be high. The same circular argument is used in relation to development and road widening.
There is also a statement in the Overall Conclusion as follows:
“ It is assumed that the site would only be allocated in combination with Wel 1 and Wel15 due to the need to provide highways upgrades and this would enclose Wel2 to the south and west with Fulling Mill Lane to the east. The existing village extends further west and north than this site and so development would not significantly extend the urban area of Welwyn”
This is, with respect, nonsense. The westward extension of Welwyn is indeed the corner of Hawbush, further to the west and any northern extension relates to Danesbury across the Mimram valley beyond Singlers Marsh. However, the urban area of the village would be increased by at least 15% if Wel 1,2 and 15 were developed, hardly insignificant!
Overall they consider this site on balance to be suitable for allocation and the green belt boundary should be extended while ensuring that Green Gap policies are considered (see later). In relation to this it is very difficult to see how a Green Gap can be maintained if developing these sites goes ahead.
We disagree strongly with their assessment.
This is considered out of sequence as it is key to the previous discussion.
WH note that this site has two major green belt contributions, preserving the countryside from encroachment and preserving the setting and special character of historic towns ie P3 and P4, They note it is directly adjacent to the Conservation Area. Its harm is assessed as being moderate/high. We think this is a site of high harm. The key strategic advantage of this site to developers is that, while there is no direct access to it from Fulling Mill Lane it unlocks both Wel 2 and Wel 6 as it is contiguous with the green belt boundary.
WH considers the site suitable for development. We strongly disagree.
This is also out of sequence as it is being seen as related to both Wel 1 and Wel 2 and could only be developed in association with them as it is not contiguous with a green belt boundary.Thus its effect on the Green Belt is considered moderate/high. Development however would leave an odd enclave of NHerts land on the northern side of Kimpton Road. Again the highways argument is applied to Fulling Mill Lane and the bridge. On balance it is considered suitable for development. We disagree and argue that Kimpton Road provides a permanent physical barrier that can serve as a strong green belt boundary. Were this boundary to be breached it would put both Fulling Mill Lane (Welwyn Hatfield) and Kimpton Road/Oakhill Drive ( N Herts) at risk of being excluded from the Green Belt putting them at risk of further development. We note that NHerts currently cannot develop their part of this area as it is not contiguous with a green belt boundary in that District.
Wel 14 b is part of a wider green belt parcel Parcel 8 the totality of which makes a major contribution to preventing encroachment on the countryside. The parcel is open and rural and any reduction of it would be very difficult to defend with a new boundary and so it is rated high harm. On that basis WH state that this site should not be considered for allocation. We agree.
As noted above this site is much reduced from the original proposal by the developer. It falls within a larger high harm parcel (P6c).The green belt analysis notes that it makes a significant contribution to safeguarding the countryside from encroachment. They also note that the rising topography of this site above the low-lying village would tend to dominate. There is no physical boundary to the site that might serve as new green belt boundary.
They conclude that this site should not be considered for allocation. We agree with this assessment.
Thus the final position is that the sites in the original Plan Wel 3, 4 and 11, to which we offered no opposition, remain as part of the 2020 proposal together with Wel 1, 2, 6, 15 as assessed above were included in the package presented to the Cabinet Committee for consideration in January.
As noted above we believe that the effects on the Green Belt have been underestimated for Wel 1,2, 6 and 15. In assessing harm to the Green Belt each has been considered as a separate entity. If it were feasible to develop perhaps one of them as such that might be considered reasonable. However, as all the reports have made clear these sites are only viable from a development infrastructure standpoint if they are developed together allowing the financing of a new bridge over the Mimram and the widening of Fulling Mill Lane and Kimpton Road. Developed together they would enclose the western slopes of the Mimram valley and Singlers Marsh completely and destroy the open vistas from the Hawbush and Glebe road estates. We strongly contend that this would represent high to very high harm to the Green Belt. See comment below on Green Gap policy.
Green Gap considerations:
The Green Gap policy aims to ensure that that the current gaps between settlements are maintained. This will of course work in tandem with the Green Belt purposes but can be considered as operating on a larger scale than potential changes to the green belt boundaries, looking at the relationship between urban and rural landscape from above rather than at ground level.
The review carried out by LUC identified several key green gaps both within the parish and between the parish and other areas. The Green Gap considerations for Welwyn Parish relate to the spaces separating Welwyn from Oaklands/Mardley Heath, ie Danesbury, separating Welwyn, Oaklands and Mardley Heath from Digswell, ie Lockleys Farm and the area to its south , The Mimram valley separating WCG and Digswell and the south-eastern side of the A1M (Monks Walk school and Malms Wood). The other important one from the standpoint of the Local Plan and the one at highest potential risk from the site assessments is the gap between Welwyn and Codicote. Wel 1,2 6 and 15 are all contained within and effectively are this green gap and including these in the Plan would destroy the gap. This reinforces the need to avoid development in this area.
The other key Green Gap is the small one between Mardley Heath and Woolmer Green. We note that the two sites bordering Heath Road, WG7 and 7a, have been rejected and this will maintain this gap.
While the officers provided the Borough with options to provide housing close to the OAN of 16000 these options were not accepted by the Cabinet Planning and Parking Panel. A proposal to remove from the recommended option all sites for which the green belt assessment was moderate/high harm or greater from the draft 2017 Plan was considered. This resulted in a shortfall of about 2000 houses. Key in this was the removal of Symondshyde from the draft Plan. This proposal was voted through and passed in Cabinet. As far as Welwyn Parish is concerned all four sites assessed as suitable in the 2019 exercise, Wel 1, 2, 6 and 15 have been removed from the draft leaving a total of 69 houses, close to the 67 in the original Plan rejected by the inspector.
There is no doubt that this lower target is a high-risk strategy for the Borough as a whole. Given that the Inspector found the 2017 Plan unsound because it fell short of the OAN it seem likely that this revised Plan will suffer the same fate. Furthermore, when this revised Plan was communicated to the Inspector in EX182 his response (EX183) made his concerns quite clear. It is not permissible under Regulation 19 to remove sites from the Plan as submitted unless they are Major Modifications intended to address matters of unsoundness flagged up by the Inspector. In other words what the Council proposes is not only numerically but also procedurally unsound.
This argues very strongly for the reintroduction of the five sites removed from the recommended option. These are Symondshyde, Cuf 7 and 12, and BrP 4 and 7. Adding these sites back to the reduced figure of 14206 would give a total of 15886 close to the OAN target. Doing this may well avoid any further sites being added to the Plan.
It is our opinion that this is what the Borough should do.