Planning battle looms

A TOWN council is launching an investigation into the fairness of residential planning controls in the world s first garden city. Letchworth Garden City Council is setting up a public consultation to gauge opinion on the current requirement for residents

A TOWN council is launching an investigation into the fairness of residential planning controls in the world's first garden city.

Letchworth Garden City Council is setting up a public consultation to gauge opinion on the current requirement for residents to submit planning applications to both North Hertfordshire District Council and Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation for approval.

In most towns there is only a requirement to submit applications to the planning authority, usually the district council.

Following some concern raised by residents, LGCC set up a working party to investigate the controls LGCHF exercise and the way they are applied.

The town council has now voted unanimously to have an investigation to determine whether the town and residents benefit from having two bodies controlling alterations and extensions to properties.

A Scheme of Management gives the Heritage Foundation the power to scrutinise, approve or reject applications but the town council claims a mechanism within the scheme allows the power to be varied, terminated or given to a local authority or another body.

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According to the town council, only 100 signatures are required to get the ball rolling to strip the Heritage Foundation of its right to approve or reject planning applications.

Cllr Philip Ross, chairman of the community development committee which is leading the study, said: "Most people in the garden city have an opinion on the development controls in the town.

"The aim of this study will be to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

"I want to separate fact from fiction, dispel any myths there may be about the system, or indeed confirm them.

"This is a chance for the people of the town to have their say.

"Crucially we aim to investigate whether the current residential controls are the best way to serve the people of the town. If not we will examine ways to see how this can be remedied."

The full investigation will involve professional and legal advice, a public meeting, written and spoken evidence and consultation with residents, other stakeholders and interested parties.

Following the investigation, the town council will publish a report and recommendations for final consultation and feedback.

Householders in the town will all receive a leaflet on the consultation together with the town council's newsletter in the coming months.

Residents can also request a leaflet from the town clerk, Richard Bowran, at Elim Church, 269 Icknield Way, Letchworth GC, or by emailing lgccouncilclerk@btconnect.com

People can also visit the town council's website at www.letchworthgardencity-council.org.uk

The consultation will run until July 30 and the town council hopes to publish its findings in the autumn.

Speaking in a personal capacity, former town council chairman Raymond Smale said: "When people buy a house in Letchworth Garden City very few realise what controls the Heritage Foundation have over their property.

"Even less realise that they do not have a right to an independent and binding review and appeal process (as operated by NHDC) when the Foundation refuse changes to their homes.

"It is something that in this day and age would, no doubt, not be condoned under our legal system and accountability concepts and basic human rights, particularly if backed up by a petition from thousands of townspeople."

Planning matters fall under the jurisdiction of the district council, not the Heritage Foundation, pointed out its director general Stuart Kenny.

All freehold land, including residential freeholds, was transferred to the Foundation when it was created in 1995.

At the same time it fell to the Foundation to operate a Scheme of Management set up under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967.

"The Foundation has a duty to enforce the Scheme of Management and covenants in leases; it is not optional," said Mr Kenny.

"There are Schemes of Management elsewhere in the UK to protect estates with 'special environments'.

"There is provision in the Foundation's Scheme of Management for the High Court to terminate or vary all or any of the provisions of the Scheme and, indeed, transfer any or all of powers and rights conferred by the Scheme to a Local Authority or other body.

"The Heritage Foundation would resolutely oppose any such action."

Mr Kenny added: "To put into context the concerns supposedly raised by residents regarding the Foundation's operation of its landlord's consent processes under the Scheme of Management and covenants in leases, in its financial year 2005/06, the Foundation received over 2,200 applications for landlords' consent. Of these, only 10 received outright refusals.

"One of the reasons for so few refusals is the design guidance which the Foundation makes freely available to the community. Indeed, as previously stated publicly, the guidance is currently being reviewed and public consultation will form an important element.

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