2023 has been a slightly frustrating year for WPAG, working hard but waiting for things to happen on various fronts. We touch on the major areas of activity below, and end with our plan of action for 2024, and a call for some assistance with our projects.
The Local Plan
The Local Plan determines where new housing development should happen across the Borough. This was eventually approved by the Inspector in September, and then adopted by Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council (WHBC) in October. Potential sites in Digswell (“Dig 1” – behind New Road) and around Welwyn Cemetery and Singlers Marsh (“Wel 1,2 & 15”) are not included, though the sites accepted back in 2016 (eg at Vineyards on Codicote Road, and Sandyhurst opposite the BP station) will proceed without change.
However, the plan is 2,000 homes short of the target of 15,200 homes. The Inspector only accepted the plan on the condition that the process for finding those extra sites should be started within 12 months of adoption, and conclude with a new plan in place by October 2026.
Therefore, we expect a whole new ‘call for sites’ process to begin in the new year, aiming to find those additional 2,000 homes from locations across the borough. Some of the councillors believe the target may yet rise further than that – despite the Inspector’s target having been shown to be based on an over-estimate of the borough’s population.
We expect that land owners will re-submit many of the sites that were unsuccessful in the previous selection process. Some of those sites (including Dig 1 and Wel 1/2/15) had actually been deemed suitable by WHBC’s planning officers, and it was only a councillor-level decision to keep them out of the plan. With a different administration now in place following last May’s elections, a repeat of the councillor-level decision looks unlikely.
Dig 1 and Wel 1/2/15 will be particularly attractive to the officers, as they can each deliver a large number of extra homes. The number of homes that can be built at Dig 1 has varied over the years, but we believe it would be in the region of 100-150. The previous plans for Wel 1/2/15 proposed ~250 homes. We expect these sites to be near the top of the planning officers’ list after the forthcoming call for sites process.
We fully recognise that Welwyn, Digswell, Oaklands and Mardley Heath need new homes. However, we know that large-scale developments in this area cater mainly for established families moving into the area from elsewhere, rather than starter homes for local younger adults to move into. Our opposition to these development sites is also driven by the fact that our villages are, to all intents and purposes, full: local and through roads are congested, local parking is full, local schools can no longer fulfil their sibling policies, GP appointments are scarce, and so on.
We already have several hundred homes being added in Knebworth and Codicote, much of which will deliver even more traffic onto roads around Welwyn and people into the schools and the GP surgeries. Within the limitations of the river valley and the motorway, the road network is impossible to expand. Nor can the schools be expanded on their current sites. And the county council’s budget cannot cover expansion of either, even if it were possible.
Development of these sites would swamp the local infrastructure, and also damage the environment and character of our settlements. The traffic generated would have a direct effect on the green spaces at the heart of our communities. It is not hard to imagine the consequences of 500 extra cars joining the Link Road/Codicote Road junction in Welwyn, engines idling alongside Singlers Marsh while they wait to join the traffic jam from Codicote, crossing a new bridge across the Mimram and polluting its unique chalk stream water, reducing access to the only part of the river that the public can enjoy along its entire 12-mile length.
Singlers Marsh Village Green application
Having Singlers Marsh registered as an official ‘Village Green’ would mean that the entirety of Singlers Marsh would be protected from development, remaining as it is today for public recreation. Although it is a Local Nature Reserve and a Local Wildlife Site, these designations do not provide much protection.
Not only did the Inspector dismiss them publicly during the Local Plan process, but a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that WHBC already have a Memorandum of Understanding with a developer to sell off part of the southern side, with well-placed rumours suggesting a value of over £1m. Somewhat astonishingly, the new Council Leader has confirmed to us that WHBC will prioritise the commercial value of the land over its environmental value.
The developer and WHBC are objecting to the Village Green registration. The developer’s motivation is obvious, but WHBC’s reasons have been more opaque. The officers have trotted out a long list of reasons to object, none of which appear to have been checked against the reality of how Village Greens actually work. We know from FOI requests that WHBC has never sought an external expert opinion on the issue. Our clear understanding (based on expert and legal advice) is that all the activities that currently take place on the land would carry on unaffected.
Earlier this year, WHBC boiled its list of objections down to three core reasons: that the land is fine as it is; that there would be a clash with its environmental management; and, that it is duty-bound to object. The first point is obviously highly subjective, and community groups tell us they feel it is poorly managed at present. Moreover, there would be no changes if it becomes a Village Green. The second point is undermined by the many other Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sites around the country that have already become Village Greens, lists of which we have supplied. The third point is negated by the actions of other councils, who have voluntarily registered their green spaces as Village Greens.
The real reason seems to be WHBC’s desire to be able to sell part of Singlers Marsh at a profit if a development opportunity arises. Its leader, Cllr Zukowskyj, confirmed as much in an email where he confirmed that there were no policy reasons for objecting to the application (ie the environmental protections don’t amount to much), but that WHBC “is obliged by law to maintain best value” and “not to object may adversely affect future decisions with a fiduciary bearing.”
WHBC’s desire to profit from a sale of the land might be set against the fact that it was originally bought with ratepayers’ money in the 1960s by the then-existing Welwyn Rural District Council, which then gifted it for free to WHBC (or WHDC as it then was) in the 1974 council reorganisation.
There is possibly a window of opportunity to influence WHBC at this point, now that the Local Plan has been adopted. With no development proposals currently allowed for the sites around Singlers Marsh, and with the land valued on WHBC’s books at zero (according to another FOI request), commonsense could allow a voluntary registration at this point. However, the new leader is taking an entrenched viewpoint on this. We are continuing to find ways to encourage this, and we have received public support from both our MP (Grant Shapps) and from Andrew Lewin (the Labour candidate at the next parliamentary election).
If WHBC can be persuaded to pause its opposition, seek expert advice on the implications (or otherwise) of the land becoming a Village Green and then make a voluntary registration, we will all be saved a lot of work and money. The alternative is to continue with the public inquiry, which began in November 2022 but which has been paused ever since due to legal arguments. WHBC has so far spent over £16,000 on legal representation at the inquiry, and we expect it will spend over £100,000 if the inquiry goes the distance. We fail to see why this is a better option for anyone than taking professional expert advice from (eg) the Open Spaces Society and considering a new course of action.
The Village Green application is made in the name of WPAG but is being co-ordinated by an alliance of WPAG, the Parish Council, Friends of the Mimram, and local residents associations. The alliance calls itself the Singlers Marsh Action Group. It has raised funds from the community to cover its legal costs at the inquiry, and these are stewarded by WPAG which – as a registered charity – files annual accounts and also benefits from Gift Aid top-up. The VG funds are ringfenced within the WPAG accounts. Total funds raised to date are £15,300, with a further £13,000 pledged but not yet collected. The legal costs to date have been £8,700, leaving £6,600 of cash reserves (plus the pledged amounts).
Without a change of heart by WHBC, the application will be determined by the county council. Having determined that our application has merit, they appointed an external barrister to run an independent inquiry process. Our legal costs are being spent on a barrister to represent us at the inquiry, and we have chosen one who specialises in village green and common land law. We occasionally also use a firm of solicitors who specialise in environmental issues, but SMAG does most of the work as volunteers. The help of these professionals has been invaluable, and they believe we have a “very convincing” case.
The inquiry has been delayed throughout 2023 by legal arguments about the role of its inspector. He initially made a ruling that we believed was unlawful, and had to make legal threats to get it reversed. Though he is supposed to be independent of all the parties, we were given reason to believe he had been advising one of the parties on the conduct of the inquiry. We asked to see the correspondence, but were refused. However, an FOI request produced almost all of it, and it seems to show a clear conflict of interest. Very disappointingly, the county council’s legal team are refusing to act on this, and we are currently considering our options.
WPAG has waited throughout the year to get this resolved and learn the dates for the next stage of the process, while all the time hoping that WHBC would review their position and thus make the whole inquiry unnecessary. We are continuing to explore further options.
If the inquiry does restart in the new year, we will need to raise further funds to cover our upcoming legal costs. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has already donated. Smaller donations can be made online via www.justgiving.com/campaign/save-singlers-marsh, and larger donations can be discussed by contacting SMAG via email at . The JustGiving site will handle GiftAid automatically, and we can manually process any direct donations. At the end of the process, any unused funds will be returned pro rata to their donors (where the donors have identified themselves to us), and the rest will be ringfenced for future work on the Local Plan.
Welwyn Conservation Area
Earlier in the year, WHBC published their proposed revisions to the Conservation Area in the centre of Welwyn, and then held a consultation which ended in July. WPAG responded with a comprehensive set of suggestions, as did other parties such as the Parish Council. WHBC’s response did not accept any of the proposed changes to the document.
Under this proposal, the Conservation Area will shrink substantially, and bad planning decisions in the past will be rewarded by removing whole areas from the conservation rules. We believe that there were mistakes in the original analysis, and it is regrettable that they have not been addressed via the consultation. We hope that the councillors will not adopt the new proposal in its current form.
Despite the wet spring and summer this year, we live in a “water-stressed” area. With continued climate changes and population growth, the problem will only get worse. Affinity Water are obliged to produce a 40-year plan to show how they will meet those needs whilst also protecting precious chalk streams, such as the Mimram. This will then be turned into a Business Plan for the next five years.
WPAG has actively contributed to this planning process, which is now being put to Ofwat (the water regulator). The main emphasis is on saving more water by reducing leaks and encouraging lower consumption, while planning extra water supplies such as bringing water from the Midlands down the Grand Union Canal and building a new reservoir. At the same time, they will reduce the amount of water taken out of the chalk stream aquifers to improve local habitats.
In the meantime, the Mimram has continued to have good water levels and flow rates this year. An Environment Agency Fish Survey showed that fish stocks were improving after the river dried out in 2020. A long term “citizen science” survey of invertebrate wildlife in the river’s water indicates that it is thankfully free of major pollution, at least for now.
The Mimram is in generally good health, though there is still a way to go and we are working to protect it from further setbacks. We are working with the Friends of the Mimram volunteer group to re-establish its “Singlers Marsh Special Interest Group” to focus on the problems faced by the river as it flows through Welwyn in particular.
The Heritage Trail is looking like it will be recommissioned in the new year. The website that powered it went offline in 2018 after a university funding problem. Attempts to replace it were delayed as Welwyn Archaeological Society (WAS) needed to find a new legal owner for it. At the time, the Parish Council was unwilling to help, and so WPAG offered to take it on. However, the pandemic then intervened.
Pleasingly, the Parish Council took a different view when WPAG took the idea back to them about a year ago, and a plan is now emerging. The Parish Council will take legal ownership of the signage and the website, while a collaboration between the Parish Council, WAS and WPAG will restore the content on a new website, and extend it to additional sites such as the Fernery and Singlers Marsh. A first version of the new site may be available as soon as January.
We understand that the Parish Council is also keen to replicate the concept in Digswell, and we hope that will go well.
Back in 2018, former Parish Council chair and current WPAG committee member (and trustee) John Roper invited the Parish Council to formulate a Neighbourhood Plan. These sit alongside a Local Plan and allow a town or Parish Council to have a say in how borough and county policies (such as planning) are implemented locally.
Cllr Bill Morris has been leading this project for the Parish Council for well over four years. Several WPAG committee members have been involved both on the steering committee and in various working groups as the plan has progressed. Bill and his colleagues have done a superb job of melding together a wide range of topics that matter to the communities in Welwyn, Oaklands, Mardley Heath and Digswell. The process is now nearing completion and should hopefully be put to a local referendum next year.
Parish Council Planning & Licensing Committee
By a long-standing arrangement, WPAG committee members are co-opted onto the Parish Council’s planning & licensing committee, which meets every three weeks throughout the year. The committee’s remit overlaps closely with WPAG’s areas of interest, and this collaboration continues to be very fruitful. We are grateful to Sandra Saunders, Caroline Tinner and John Roper in particular for their efforts here.
2024: More Projects and Request for Assistance
Looking ahead into 2024, we will continue our specific work on the Local Plan, the Heritage Trail and the Village Green application, as well as our other activities. We also want to start looking at how to better protect and promote the River Mimram as it flows through the parish, and what can be done to better handle the ever-increasing volumes of road traffic in and around our settlements.
We have room on our committee for some extra members. We are looking for people from across Welwyn village, Oaklands, Mardley Heath and Digswell with an interest in keeping the area special. We meet as a committee a few times during the year, and work on the various projects as needed. Committee members do not need to have lived locally for decades. Some of us are retired, while others are still working, and some of us are fairly new to Welwyn. We are looking for people with an interest to get into what are often quite complex issues, and to look at them with a calm and level approach.
If you might be interested in getting involved, please contact Russell Haggar at for an informal discussion.
With Christmas now only a few weeks away, the WPAG Committee would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Christmas, and to thank you for your support during 2023.
We will provide updates on our various projects via further email newsletters as well as on our Facebook page (facebook.com/WelwynPlanning), and please keep an eye open for arrangements for our AGM. If you want to find out more about anything that we’re doing, please do contact us and ask.
With very best wishes,
Welwyn Planning & Amenity Group