The Local Plan 2011-31 for North Herts was approved for adoption by councillors at an Extraordinary Council meeting on Tuesday, November 8.

This comes following a number of years of public consultations, public hearings, and an examination by government planning inspectors. 

The Local Plan includes details of how and where approximately 11,600 new homes will be built (including those already built since 2011), as well as plans for new and expanded employment sites in Baldock and Royston. 

It covers other areas across North Herts too, including Hitchin, Letchworth, Knebworth, Codicote, Offley and Weston.  

Every local authority is required to have a Local Plan, which provides a strategy for ensuring growth is focused on the right places, and is of the right character and quality. 

In addition to detailing where new housing may be located, the Local Plan sets out requirements for supporting other infrastructure including roads, schools retail, leisure and community facilities.  

It also highlights the need for environmental considerations during design processes, including encouraging walking and cycling, reducing water use, and providing new habitats for nature.

Tuesday's Extraordinary meeting began at 7.30pm and ended an hour before midnight.

In presentations made by ten members of the public speaking independently of one another, councillors heard how the "last oak in Hitchin" could be surrounded by concrete if developers decide to build on land allocated to housing in the town.

Some speakers said the building on some former green belt sites in the plan could amount to "environmental vandalism".

Before the vote, Cllr Chris Hinchcliff said:

"We are in a completely invidious position tonight and I really do not feel we have a meaningful and genuine choice in how to vote.

"It is the government which is forcing us into a position where we can only adopt a local plan if we accept the imposition of a housing algorithm which requires us to increase the amount of housing locally by roughly 20 per ent in ten years, which is completely unrealistic to actual population growth in the district."

In March 2020, the government set out that each council should have a local plan in place by 2023.

Without a North Hertfordshire Local Plan, the council would need to use a set of national policies to decide whether or not to grant developers permission to build in the area.

Cllr Hinchcliff added that he disputed arguments that the local plan would enable first-time buyers to move into the area if the mix of housing being approved is inappropriate.

“The idea that this is an issue of supply and demand is frankly for the birds,” he said.

"Prices are a reflection of financialisaton and profit maximisation, not the simple equation others have suggested.

“I have enormous sympathy for the communities whose nature will be fundamentally changed by the site allocations proposed, and I don’t think the extent to which this robs people of the place they call home and whether they have roots can be overlooked.”

The figure of 11,600 new homes is a reduction from the original 13,800 target when the plan was first being put together.

Most of the development is due to take place in Baldock, where land is earmarked for 2,198 homes, with large housing land allocations for Hitchin, Letchworth, Royston, Stevenage and Luton.

Public speakers and councillors in favour of development highlighted that more housing would generate more council tax revenue and help promote high street businesses in Hitchin, Knebworth, Letchworth and Royston.

Cllr George Davies said:

“Over the summer you could have been forgiven for thinking the country had opened a Pandora’s selection box of crises.

“We had a water shortage, energy prices are through the roof, the trains are overcrowded and we have a housing crisis.

“I thought to myself, where do these problems come from?

“They start in this room and rooms very much like it up and down the country when politicians don’t do the courageous but unpopular thing.”

Closing the debate, North Herts executive member for planning Cllr Ruth Brown said: “I was one of the people who voted to reduce the numbers back in 2020.

“I wanted to save some green belt.

“At this stage, our opportunities to amend this plan and save those sites is over.

“We don’t have enough brownfield and we have acute housing need in this district.”

The plan was voted through 30 councillors to eight, with two abstentions.

A review of the plan – which could be undertaken “line-by-line” – is set to begin before the end of 2023.

Cllr Elizabeth Dennis-Harburg, leader of North Herts Council, said: “I would like to thank members of the previous administration for their hard work in getting the plan submitted for inspection. 

“Developing a Local Plan is a long and complex process, but I am pleased that we finally have a strategy supported by the government’s inspector that will give the council greater control over where new developments will go – and will also ensure up to 40 per cent of our largest housing schemes will be reserved for lower cost options, such as affordable rent and shared ownership. 

“It is also great news that land between Hitchin and Luton will now be designated a new area of Green Belt, linking to Green Belt in Bedfordshire. 

Cllr Ruth Brown also thanked everybody involved in the Local Plan consultations and examination, and said: “Through our plan we will require new developments to deliver high-quality sustainable design, open space and routes for pedestrians and cyclists to help the fight against climate change.” 

The Local Plan, and the planning inspectorate’s report on the examination of that plan, are available here