Government urged to postpone Local Plan hearings after speakers pull out amid coronavirus fears
PUBLISHED: 15:32 12 March 2020 | UPDATED: 17:00 12 March 2020
The latest hearing sessions to discuss North Herts District Council’s Local Plan are hanging by a thread this afternoon, after coronavirus fears have led to at least six speakers pulling out.
Due to begin on Monday, the sessions at the Icknield Centre in Letchworth will debate contentious issues such as the Green Belt review and the five-year housing supply plan - with a great number of residents acting as representors.
The Comet understands that at least 15 speakers are considering withdrawing, and many more who will no longer be attending as witnesses.
In an email sent to the government's programme officer, seen by this paper, resident Anthony Burrows voiced 'great concern' about continuing with the hearings, bearing in mind 'parliament's concerns that all measures should be taken to avoid large groups of people meeting together, especially the elderly'.
Mr Burrows - who is also president of Letchworth-based group Save the World's First Garden City - added: 'As I am sure H.M. Inspector is fully aware, a lot of the representors are clearly over 65. My great concern is that someone who unknowingly has Covid-19 attends one of the hearings and then dozens of those who attended will have to self-isolate - with great damage to small businesses such as mine, which are increasingly run by the elderly.
'Because of this situation, I am respectfully requesting postponement of the hearings.'
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Another elderly resident, Barry Brown - who was scheduled to speak for five of the days - has declared he will no longer be attending, having recently been discharged from hospital.
In an email to government Inspector Simon Berkeley, Mr Brown said: 'The 60-plus age group, of which I am part, are the most vulnerable to death or complications. Is it fair to put people at further unnecessary risk this time and place them under pressure to come against their better judgement?'
Representor Cheryl Peers also wrote to the government this morning, citing similar fears: 'The situation is very serious and as you surely know, the number of people over 60 at your hearings is high. My husband is 82. Your inspector may not be worried about people's health but believe me, I will know who to blame if he contracts coronavirus or I do whilst at your hearings.'
In response to the concerns, Mr Berkeley said that he 'recognises the issue,' and confirmed it is one that he is 'presently considering'.
In an email sent yesterday, he added: 'In parallel, I am anticipating that the Planning Inspectorate will be issuing advice on this matter to all Inspectors, and that this is expected imminently. Once I have received that advice, I will decide how to proceed and convey that to people wishing to participate in the hearings as a matter of urgency.'
A statement released by NHDC on Monday - and reiterated this morning - denies the imminent postponement of the hearings.
An NHDC spokesperson said: 'The inspector will be proceeding with the hearing scheduled to start on March 16 as there is no advice to inspectors to the contrary at present.
'The hearings will only be cancelled if the advice on coronavirus changes. If that were to happen, a note would be posted on the website and all participants would be notified as soon as possible.'