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8th October 2015 Public Meeting

22nd October 2015 Public Meeting

Making life more sustainable

Sustainability has become a buzz-word in the 21st Century, as environmentalists and others concerned about the future of the planet strive to achieve wider awareness of the unremitting damage being inflicted on our natural surroundings. At a local level a volunteer group calling itself ‘Transition St Albans’ – itself part of a worldwide ‘Transition Network’ – is working to encourage people to adopt a ‘greener’ attitude to everyday living.

Two of the group’s leading members, Catherine Ross and Lesley Flowers, addressed a recent meeting of the Harpenden Society, ahead of what has been dubbed ‘SuStAinable StAlbans Week’, being held from November 21 to 28.  During that week, which is being supported by Friends of the Earth, over 100 related events are being staged across the St Albans district, focussed on the following themes: Energy; Water; Food; Transport; and Natural Habitats.

At the Harpenden Society meeting, the group speakers gave examples of the many ways in which greater environmental sustainability can be achieved locally.  The issue of climate change inevitably arose and its likely dependence on fossil fuel use. There was a reminder that oil-derived products are being burned at a faster rate than new oil reserves are being found.

For anyone concerned about heat – and therefore energy – loss from their homes, via doors, walls, windows etc, the local Transition group has acquired a thermal-imaging camera which can be borrowed to establish the most efficient insulation strategy.

‘Grow more of your own food’ was another key exhortation. For those who demurred at the challenge of taking on a traditional allotment, the Transition group speakers mentioned smaller vegetable beds available for private cultivation on a plot at Harpenden’s Hammonds End Farm, where an Open Day is planned for Sunday November 22, from 1 to 4pm.      

Another quite different aim of the Transition group is get young people involved in enhancing their living environment.  For example parents, under the heading of ‘Playing Out’, are being prompted to organise occasional street closures – sanctioned by Herts County Council – enabling children to play games in the street with the same healthy freedom enjoyed by earlier generations.       

For more information visit www.sustainablestalbans.org

Today’s planning procedures, as set out in the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and exemplified by St Albans District Council’s Strategic Local Plan, are deeply flawed, according to a recently-retired Hertfordshire local authority officer.  

At the October meeting of the Harpenden Society, guest speaker Mike Carver, former East Herts District Council executive member for strategic planning, said improved procedures were needed. He criticised the failure of today’s processes, in the supposed drive to provide more housing, to live up to the NPPF’s cardinal principles of sustainability, affordability, viability and deliverability.

Although those four principles were all admirable aspirations, it was evident over the last twenty years, he said, that as councils strove to reconcile them, unavoidable conflicts had emerged, making the task impractical and often impossible.  

National reorganisation, abolishing the former regional structures, mainly in favour of larger areas had, said Mr Carver, led to lack of co-ordination and to muddle. Central government, county councils and district councils all wanted to influence planning decisions.  

Furthermore the reorganisation clashed with the proclaimed benefits of ‘localism’, often because, in practice, too many other stakeholders were far from being local.  

More crucially it led to the problem – massive but too often ignored – of infrastructure provision. Where new housing was planned, there was frequently little or no attention paid to the associated need for highway upgrading, water supply or schools provision.

Responsibility for funding what Mr Carver called the infrastucture ‘gap’ inevitably became bogged down in prolonged negotiations, or arguments, between government and county officials, both often looking to the developers – only too eager to build houses – to contribute financially.


Mr Carver also questioned the determination of local authorities to implement the NPPF guidelines in spirit as well as in practice. He cited the issue of Neighbourhood Plans and their sequencing; they are typically submitted for consideration after Local Plan adoption.

He criticised the loose phrasing of much of the NPPF documentation, so that its wording could be challenged through the courts. As an example he quoted ‘severe’ in relation to traffic – how severe was severe?  Even more contentiously, he cited the term ‘Green Belt’, which the average citizen would think a precise description of a piece of land, but which had proved subject to definitive dispute.

When proposals to build on Green Belt were considered, planning authorities, such as St Albans District Council, had to decide whether ‘exceptional circumstances’ applied. But, said Mr Carver, no one had yet come forward with a legal definition of ‘exceptional circumstances’.  

Planners were also unsettlingly aware that at any time, seemingly on a whim, central government could change the rules on permitted development, not least in the form of Green Belt reviews. In consequence it was not surprising, he said, that councillors, let alone council tax payers, often could not understand planning processes, even though it was acknowledged, tacitly at least, that ‘public engagement’ was essential if local democracy was to be maintained.

The Society’s Tim Riley with Mike Carver

Mike Carver addresses the meeting

Tim Riley chairs the Q&A session

Catherine Ross, The Society’s John Davis & Lesley Flowers

Catherine Ross & Lesley Flowers