A decision is set to be made on whether to grant planning permission for a proposed development of 700 homes between Hitchin and Letchworth.

The planning application for Highover Farm was submitted in 2018, and will finally come before North Herts Council's Planning Control Committee on Thursday, July 6.

Ward councillors and many local residents are opposed to the plans, with 600 people so far signing a petition against it.

Their concerns centre on the size of the proposed development, and what they say is a lack of necessary infrastructure to support it.

What does the development include?

The 37 hectare site used to be farmland, though farming stopped several years ago after construction plans emerged.

It is bordered by Stotfold Road on the Letchworth side, by the railway line on the north side, and by Grovelands Avenue on the Hitchin side.

The 700 homes planned for the site are expected to include 54 one-bedroom flats, 60 two-bedroom flats, 154 two-bedroom houses, 243 three-bedroom houses, 168 four-bedroom houses, and 21 five-bedroom houses.

Based on this mix of house sizes, the proposal would require a minimum of 1,346 private car parking spaces and between 175 and 525 visitor parking spaces. The application does not include a figure for the number of car parking spaces to be included.

Forty per cent (280) of the properties will be "affordable housing", according to the government definition of the term.

Additional amenities provided as part of the development include a primary school, a park and play area, and some retail space. No new secondary school or GP surgeries are planned.

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The main street running through the development will be the Avenue, running from a new roundabout on Stotfold Road to High Dane in Walsworth. To prevent it being used as a through road, it will be open only to buses.

The farmyard itself - including its Grade II-listed barn - is not part of the application.

Why are councillors and residents opposed to the development?

There is significant opposition to the development locally, both from ward councillors and residents. 185 comments were received by North Herts Council from residents objecting to the plans, and just two in support.

Cllr Elizabeth Dennis, speaking in her capacity as councillor for Hitchin Walsworth ward, criticised the applicant - BDW Homes Ltd, which operates under the Barratt Homes and David Wilson Homes banners - for failing to engage with the community.

The Comet: Council leader Elizabeth Dennis has criticised the plans. Picture: Rebecca StewartCouncil leader Elizabeth Dennis has criticised the plans. Picture: Rebecca Stewart (Image: Rebecca Stewart)

She told the Comet: “It’s somewhat positive feedback about the High Dane access point and retention of some natural habitat have been taken onboard.

"However, Hitchin’s roads are full. We cannot sustain more homes without investment in our highways infrastructure.

"It is not adequate to merely change the existing junction at Woolgrove Road to facilitate this development, Cambridge Road is already a choked single carriageway and cannot handle the foreseeable increase in vehicles.

The Comet: Opponents of the development say it will overload already busy roads in the local area.Opponents of the development say it will overload already busy roads in the local area. (Image: Highover Development Action Group)

"This is before air quality is considered.

“A two form of entry primary school with no investment in our already oversubscribed secondary schools in Hitchin will add further pressure. The county council must act to resolve this to avoid an education crisis.

“It remains my view that this site is too large. While we must take action to increase housing, we need the right homes, in the right places, for the right price. Highover Farm as proposed is not the solution.”

Her comments are supported by her fellow Hitchin Walsworth representative, Cllr Daniel Wright-Mason.

Cllr Wright-Mason also cited the expected cost of the properties and the lack of solar panels amid an energy crisis as reasons for opposing the development as currently planned.

Bim Afolami, the MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, has raised potential traffic problems too. He told the Comet: “It is disappointing that an opportunity for some joined-up thinking to alleviate some of Hitchin’s traffic woes appears to have been missed by planners at Highover Farm.

"I’ve made it clear privately that this represents a golden opportunity to provide a relief road for HGV traffic going to and from the industrial estate.

"I hope that the planning committee will take the opportunity to press for that.”

Many local residents are concerned about what the development will mean for the area.

David Pickett said: “Even if you ignore the fact that this will effectively create a conurbation of Hitchin and Letchworth, leaving just a single field between them, building an estate on this scale this far out of town and with so few facilities on-site will ensure that all the new households will be utterly car-dependent, which is very bad news for Hitchin’s roads."

The site - as measured from the Stotfold Road entrance - is 2.3 miles from Hitchin railway station and 2.1 miles from Letchworth Garden City railway station.

A video from a local resident explaining their objections to the development

Ian Allsopp, another local resident, commented: “It never was an ideal site for so many houses, but the local council were being driven by national government house-building targets to find sites for large numbers of new houses to meet centrally set targets.

"Literally one month after the Local Plan was agreed, Rishi Sunak signalled that national government would be abolishing centrally-set house-building targets and strengthening protection of the Green Belt.

"But our local council seems determined to push on with its plans to build on an unsuitable significant Green Belt location at Highover Farm regardless.”

Among the other objectors were the Hitchin Forum and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

So why has the application been recommended for approval by planning officers?

The site was identified in the North Herts Local Plan for 2011-31 - officially adopted in November 2022 - as an area where 700 properties could be built. Upon adoption, Highover Farm was removed from the Green Belt.

That plan identified a significant housing need in North Herts for 13,000 new homes over its period, including 1,800 in Hitchin.

The Comet: An aerial view of the proposed development site.An aerial view of the proposed development site. (Image: Highover Development Action Group)

The government has a target of building 300,000 homes per year, though a number of think tanks and researchers argue that even that would be insufficient to solve the UK's housing shortage. In 2021/22, 233,000 new homes were built.

Freddie Poser, the director of Priced Out, argues that young people have been priced out of the housing market because of an undersupply of homes caused by objections from local residents.

In the last twelve months, the average house price in Hitchin was £466,000.

Concerns about the impact of the proposed development on local roads were dismissed by Hertfordshire County Council's Highways team, who concluded that the development will not have a "severe impact".

However, Highover Development Action Group has raised concerns about the Transport Assessment modelling submitted as part of the application.

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A spokesperson for the group described the assessment as "wildly optimistic" in its predictions of how little extra traffic would be generated by the development. They believe the assessment fails to account for other developments that have been built since it was written in 2018, and underestimates the percentage of households that would be on the roads at peak times.

Other infrastructure worries have been deflected by an agreement for the developers to make financial contributions to local education, recreation, healthcare, and sports services.

These include £7m for secondary education in the local area - including the expansion of The Priory School - and £30k for extending services at Portmill GP Surgery.

Meanwhile, £3.4m would be contributed towards local sustainable transport projects. £875k of that would fund an additional bus on the 81 route for five years - the route currently serves the Westmill Estate, Hitchin town centre and Walsworth, but would extend to include the new development too.