Sir Ross Cranston sitting as a Judge of the High Court has ruled that St Albans has not fulfilled the requirements of the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ with neighbouring authorities in the preparation of its Strategic Local Plan. This is fatal to the plan and the Examination will not continue. St Albans must withdraw the plan and engage in necessary discussions and actions through the preparation of a new plan.
St Albans City and District Council (SACDC) submitted their Strategic Local Plan (SLP) to the Secretary of State in August 2016. The appointed Inspector, David Hogger, raised initial concerns that St Albans had not fulfilled its requirement with regards to the Duty to Cooperate, and held an initial hearing in October last year.
The Duty to Cooperate requires Local Authorities to make every effort to secure the necessary cooperation on strategic cross-boundary matters before they submit their plans for examination.
The Inspector ruled in November that the Duty to Cooperate requirement had not been met and that SACDC should withdraw the SLP and undertake meaningful and effective discussion with neighbouring authorities.
SACDC chose to challenge this in the High Court seeking to quash the Inspectors decision and continue with the examination of the plan.
A hearing was held in the High Court over two days, from 21 June, overseen by Sir Ross Cranston.
SACDC retained the position that effective cooperation had been undertaken, but that an impasse had been reached; St Albans maintained it is a separate housing market from the neighbouring authorities and has differing views on housing need. SACDC noted that the Duty to Cooperate was not a duty to agree and therefore there was no further requirement to cooperate.
The judgement handed down confirms the Inspector was correct in his decision and the Duty to Cooperate has not been met. SACDC must now consider any further legal recourse or accept the judgement and start again with its plan providing clear evidence of effective working with neighbouring authorities.
Mary Maynard, portfolio holder for planning at St Albans Council, provided the following comment in response to the decision:
We will take stock and re-assess our approach, and we look forward to working with all our stakeholders, particularly our neighbouring Councils. We want to make sure we achieve the very best outcomes for residents. This will include balancing the delivery of the right number of homes to meet the needs of our growing population, ensuring our business and retail community continue to thrive and protecting our precious green belt and green spaces.
The timescale for a new plan will depend on whether further legal action is taken, however at best it is not likely a new plan will be produced for at least 18 months, leaving the current 1994 version of the St Albans Local Plan the prevailing development plan document.
This is bad news for those within the Council, as there is clearly a difference of opinion with neighbouring authorities with regards to housing need, St Albans states that the housing need for the district is at 435 dwellings per annum; while the neighbouring authorities shared evidence (South West Herts Authorities) evidence a need for St Albans District at 710 dwellings per annum. This will be a difficult matter to resolve; but clearly something that cannot simply be ignored by those at SACDC. Future work will need to be much more closely aligned with neighbouring authorities; particularly over matters of housing need (full objectively assessed need), green belt review and infrastructure requirements.
One matter that could greatly assist is the much-awaited consultation on the proposed 'simpler methodology' for calculating objectively assessed need that is expected to be published by the Government imminently. This will standardise the method for calculating full objectively assessed need and will hopefully assist in resolving Duty to Cooperate matters such as in this case. The resulting methodology is not likely to be adopted until April 2018. With many other Local Authorities waiting until the publication of the Housing White Paper before continuing with Local Plan consultations, it may well be a sensible move for St Albans to await certainty on this point before launching a revised plan.
This serves as a reminder to Authorities preparing Local Plans that the Duty to Cooperate requires continual and effective dialogue with neighbouring authorities throughout plan preparation over cross-boundary matters. Indeed this may further promote the trend seen in areas for Local Authorities to join with neighbours to produce joint plans.
The former SLP contained four broad locations for residential development, releasing areas of Green Belt land for development. Two such allocations were at land East of Hemel Hempstead, adjoining the neighbouring authority of Dacorum. The judgement on the duty to cooperate will bring to the fore discussions on whether these sites will be counted as providing housing to meet the needs of St Albans district only, or whether a cross-boundary agreement will be established to recognise the growth to Hemel Hempstead as attributing at least in part to the housing needs of Dacorum. This, along with the need to resolve differences over evidence base matters will load greater pressure onto St Albans to meet housing need in an area of high housing demand, housing affordability issues and significant Green Belt Constraint.
There will inevitably be a need to identify more land for development and there simply is not enough previously developed land and non-green belt land within St Albans district for this to be met; a more comprehensive and effective review of Green Belt land will be required. But for an Authority who previously considered themselves to be a single housing market area, the question of a joint local plan with neighbouring authorities may be a level of cooperation too far.