RLeydon introduced himself to the Committee as the Strategic Planning and Regeneration Team Leader, noting that his main role is focused on the delivery of the local plan, resulting in the mitigation strategy that would be presented.
ARobinson began by noting that he would be presenting a draft document and asked the Committee to note the progress made on the development of the strategy.
ARobinson noted the restrictions introduced 6 months ago around granting planning consent as a result of the recreation impact on the Beechwoods, and that the team have developed the mitigation strategy for the area to allow restrictions to be lifted. The report provides an update on the 3 strands of the mitigation strategy being developed, (1) progress on the SAM tariff, (2) the identification of the SANG sites and preparation of these are compensation sites, and (3) the update on the Gateway Projects. ARobinson reiterated that this is an ongoing process and there are a number of unresolved issues still being worked on, though the mitigation strategy is at a position to be discussed with members.
Cllr Timmis stated that the purpose of the mitigation is to attract people away from Beechwoods and put alternatives in place, noting that the issue is SANGs can't replace the Chilterns Beechwood. ARobinson explained that the basis of the mitigation strategy is to take pressure away from the area somehow and the SAM tariff will help put mitigation measures in place. This will include a number of interventions, such as protection zones, though a lot will also be around education and having people on site to educate residents and visitors to use the site responsibly. ARobinson acknowledged that they could not replace Ashridge and that SANGs would help provide alternative spaces that people can use for dog-walking or running to help take pressure off Ashridge.
Cllr Timmis commented on the additional pressure that would be put on the area if they intend to proceed with housing plans and asked what measures are being put in place to address this. ARobinson advised that the focus of the report is on how to lift the moratorium. On the wider issue of the local plan, ARobinson noted the number of reforms to the planning system and housing numbers, and that the local plan will have to look at this. Cllr Timmis responded that the main challenge is the number of people and that the mitigation should include how to reduce the number of people, such as addressing the number of houses being built in the area. It was noted that that it had already been stated that they could not compete with Ashridge and instead the focus is to work with the National Trust to make Ashridge less attractive, which DBC can help with through the local plan. Cllr Timmis acknowledged the aim to encourage people elsewhere and that she felt they should look at housing as part of the mitigating actions to reduce the number of people visiting the area.
ARobinson agreed that further discussions are required regarding the impact of housing growth on the area and that this will form part of the local plan, and that the current focus is how to put a protection process in place to release some of the development that has been on hold for 6 months, which has had a significant economic impact. Cllr Timmis thanked the officer for his response and reiterated that mitigating effects must include the numbers of people they are moving into an area that they are also trying to protect. RLeydon responded that the mitigation strategy is a process being followed for the local adopted plan and national policy as applied today, and the same legal process will need to be applied to the local plan going forward, and the next step will be to consider this within the context of the new local plan and whether it is sufficient.
Cllr Beauchamp commended the document. Cllr Beauchamp advised that he had spoken to someone running a survey in Gadebridge Park and asked if they could receive the outcome of this survey. It was noted that a number of surveys are being run across different parks.
Cllr Beauchamp referred to interactive map on page 52 of the report and the avoidance zone on page 54, noting that both maps are the same. It was noted that the link was the same for both items. RLeydon advised that the link presents both zones on a single map. Cllr Beauchamp stated that the report implied it would show the 500m zone. RLeydon confirmed that the expectation is the map will be upgraded once the strategy is implemented.
Referring back to Cllr Beauchamp's comments on the surveys being conducted, ARobinson confirmed that this data would be made available and he noted item 3.13 in the report that identifies the 3 sites the council has identified as SANG sites. In addition to paying the SAM tariff, developers will also need to contribute towards SANG sites and the surveys are to help understand the capacity of these sites and what additional capacity these sites can serve. This will then allow the team to understand what current backlog of development, and it is estimated that around 2,500 homes are currently on hold, can be released once the moratorium is lifted.
Cllr England commented that he found it hard to engage with the report in its current form and stated that he would need to wait for Part B. ARobinson acknowledged that there is key information missing from the report, such as the overall tariff, which is subject to ongoing negotiations with the National Trust and other authorities, and they hope these discussions will be brought to a conclusion soon. On Part B, ARobinson stated that this will deal with the administration and processes, with the main items of the mitigation strategy looking at the overall figure, what this means per dwelling and how much capacity there will be on SANG sites. ARobinson noted that this information wasn't yet available and would be brought back to the Committee when it is. Cllr England asked when this was likely to be. ARobinson confirmed that capacity surveys should be concluded in early October, discussions regarding the overall tariff are ongoing though should be concluded within the coming weeks.
Cllr England noted the reference to Appendix A and explained that it was difficult to understand the clause in Part A without seeing the appendix, which will be part of Part B. ARobinson advised that Appendix A will be a more operational document. RLeydon agreed, explaining that Part B will set up the operational process.
Cllr England commented that they had been told that the Beechwoods are at risk and that so far he could to see how they get back to equilibrium and how much is on planning for the future. ARobinson stated that the document sets out how to get back to equilibrium and address the development currently within the system. The future local plan will be had throughout the local plan process, with the mitigation strategy already in place, though it will be regularly reviewed. Once the local plan is adopted, there will be one document that sets out the whole process, and the current document focuses on how to bring them back to equilibrium.
Cllr England noted the reference to 6 projects and that he was unable to see in the report what these are. RLeydon advised that the 6 projects are different types of interventions. Cllr England stated that he was unable to judge if the projects are good value and whether they are dealing with the core problem. It was noted that there is less parking available and that they would either see illegal parking or that it would deter people from visiting, that the focus needs to be on preventing the environmental impact by people deciding to visit the area regardless.
ARobinson commented on the viability of the strategy, stating that the mitigations don't end once the strategy has been published and that there will be ongoing monitoring and will be reviewed at least every 3 years to ensure the council understands the impact of the tariff and SANG sites. If the strategy is not working, further interventions can be requested. It was noted that it should be reviewed annually and that this could be relaxed if the strategy is found to have a positive impact, and that they should know when they have reached equilibrium.
Cllr Taylor asked when they plan to publish the full document with appendices. ARobinson referred back to his earlier comments, noting the ongoing discussions with the National Trust and other organisations on agreeing the exact figures, though these should be concluded in the coming weeks. Site surveys are close to being concluded and management plans need to be prepared for SANGs. ARobinson advised that they are still several weeks away from having all the information pulled together and that he hoped to present the final set of documents ready by late October or early November, subject to management plans being produced.
Cllr Taylor noted that the full document would set out a number of interventions and asked how long it would take for these to be put in place and the moratorium would be lifted. ARobinson explained that the lifted restrictions are likely to be geographically focused and parts of the borough will not have restrictions lifted. On the timetable, ARobinson stated that he hoped to start lifting restrictions within the next month, though this assumes that the current work already outlined are completed within this timeframe.
Cllr Taylor declared a potential interest, noting that he represents Berkhamsted Town Council on the Ashridge Estate Management Committee. Cllr Taylor asked if restrictions would be lifted on the outer areas. ARobinson confirmed that the 500m buffer area around Ashridge would effectively remain in perpetuity and they are unlikely to ever allow new residential development within that zone. The current intention is for 2 categories of development with smaller developments of 1-10 units and larger developments above 10 units. Smaller developments, subject to SANG capacity, capacity should be allocated to some of those sites across the borough, meaning a 5-unit scheme in Tring could have allocated capacity at Chipperfield, though this could not be done for a larger development. ARobinson advised that they should therefore be able to lift restrictions in and around Hemel Hempstead as this is where the SANG sites are located, and on a limited basis for smaller developments elsewhere in the borough, though SANG capacity will be limited and not all restrictions will be lifted immediately. A protocol will therefore be developed on which sites will be released first and will depend on the capacity within the SANG sites.
Cllr Taylor voiced his concerns about a lack of information on the SANG sites and that he was unsure of when restrictions were likely to be lifted, adding that they also need to consider when the Committee can scrutinise proposals to ensure SANG sites will meet the required needs and attract people away from Ashridge. Cllr Taylor commented that a SANG site in Hemel Hempstead would be unlikely to deter people from Tring visiting Ashridge. ARobinson confirmed that that the report notes the 3 SANG sites as Bunker's Park, Gadebridge and Chipperfield, subject to capacity. Each of these sites will require a management plan, which are currently being prepared in-house in conjunction with Natural England and there is confidence that the management plans will be suitable. On the tariff, ARobinson noted the ongoing negotiations taking place, and whilst they will update the Committee on the conclusion of this, though once the tariff and SANG sites have been signed off by Natural England, this will be enough to discharge their legal function to protect Ashridge.
RLeydon clarified that the 3 SANG sites are the first 3 being looked at, and while they should assist with the moratorium being lifted, they will not solve all issues. RLeydon noted that they are the start of the process and they will look at other land in the borough in future, applicants can propose their own SANG sites, and they could look to have up to 10 SANG sites in a year's time.
Cllr Taylor acknowledged the comments and asked if planning permission could be granted without the Committee scrutinising the final strategy. ARobinson advised that the restrictions were put in place without Committee involvement, and when a developer submits a planning application, they have a duty to discharge the Habitats Regulation, and once the document is sufficiently developed, the planning authority can state they are comfortable that the mitigation is in place and can grant planning consent. ARobinson stated that this is a process rather than a decision and therefore there is a limited interface with the Committee. It was noted that a separate conversation needs to be had on the timetable around lifting restrictions and how this aligns with future SPAE meetings, adding that he would have concerns around publishing the document without a meeting taking place.
Cllr Harden asked if the document would go to Cabinet and Council for approval. ARobinson advised that this is a separate legal process that the council performs as a planning authority and therefore doesn't necessarily require a Cabinet decision. Other authorities are not taking this to Cabinet once signed off.
Cllr Harden asked if Committee members with pending concerns would have the opportunity to look at a final draft scenario. Cllr Anderson suggested that this become a standing verbal item at the next two meetings to allow officers to provide a verbal update on progress. Cllr Taylor noted that a large number of Berkhamsted and Tring residents use Ashridge, and if sufficient alternatives in this area are not made available, they will continue to visit Ashridge, and the Committee member stated that he wanted to see what mitigations would be in the area before developments proceed to ensure that the problem is genuinely being addressed. It was noted that the moratorium would not be lifted across the whole borough immediately and that all available information had been brought to the Committee.
Cllr Harden noted ARobinson's comments, stating that whilst they can scrutinise the document, he queried what else they could contribute to the strategy that isn't within the legal framework. ARobinson noted that some items will be handled by Natural England and the National Trust, and the council's involvement is around SANG sites, though there is limited flexibility in coming up with these. ARobinson advised that there is a balance between getting the Committee involved and allowing officers to progressing the strategy quickly to get the moratorium lifted, noting that they could look at verbal updates and suggested that they consider this further offline.
Cllr Rogers referred item 2.4 on page 31 of the report and the statement that the majority of people who visit Ashridge are local. Cllr Rogers if research supports this. It was noted that this was based on distance from the site. Cllr Rogers commented that this was a note of concern as that the price of houses would go up with everybody in the area paying more for new houses if those using Ashridge is diminished. Cllr Rogers added that it will depend on how the National Trust markets Ashridge outside of the local area and that they may be paying for the improvement of facilities through an increase in house prices. ARobinson noted the data within the footprint ecology report and that around 75% of those who use Ashridge live within Dacorum, though a number of people from outside the borough also use the site. On cost, ARobinson advised that there would be an inevitable increase in development costs, though that will come off the land in the medium term and those currently in the system will need to pay a per-dwelling amount as per the mitigation.
Cllr Stevens commented on safeguarding SANG sites for 80 years and asked how they safeguard ownership over this time. ARobinson confirmed that the current strategy focuses on Ashridge and their own land, though there will be developers who come forward that will provide on-site SANG and they need to ensure that the long-term management of this is in place. There may be step-in rights for the council in future years and there will be a wider conversation on the council's role in stewardship, which is being looked at currently. ARobinson advised that any SANG has to be in place in the long-term and guidelines around this will be in place. RLeydon referred to items 3.5.3 and 3.5.6 on what is required to secure a SANG, including an agreement with the landowner that the site will be secured and kept in perpetuity. The management plan will include costs for at least 80 years.
Cllr Stevens stated that they have a poor history of monitoring and asked how they could ensure this process would persist. ARobinson advised that they have a legal obligation. Cllr Stevens countered that legal obligations can be changed. ARobinson stated that the current legal obligations, which are unlikely to change soon as the protection of the site is enshrined within international law, state that the site will be protected and a legal framework is in place to ensure this. One requirement of this framework is for ongoing monitoring and a governance process will be in place to monitor SANGs and National Trust reports.
Cllr England referred to item 5.2 and the suggestion that a review will take place in 3 years. Cllr England asked if this had been agreed between authorities or could be changed. RLeydon advised that this was proposed by authorities in response to Natural England's experience elsewhere. The normal process is that the mitigation process is that they be reviewed every 5 years and it was felt this should be updated to 3 to align with other new local plans being prepared across authorities. Looking at 4.2.2, RLeydon noted that it states future reviews can be brought forward if required, and some key indicators within the monitoring process could bring forward the review. Cllr England commented that he would prefer the first review to take place within a year. Cllr Harden noted the comment and asked that officers consider this. ARobinson confirmed that this could be discussed further with Natural England, though they need to allow time for interventions to take effect and a number of visitor surveys need to be commissioned, and while 1 year may not be enough, this will be discussed further.
Cllr Foster noted her concern about the report not coming back to the Committee and asked if the catchment area includes both local and SANG sites where they expect people to visit from further away. ARobinson confirmed that they would consider the involvement of SPAE further. On the catchment areas, ARobinson stated that the radius of influence depends on the size of the SANG. Cllr Foster noted that there could be development within the SANG catchment area but no facilities and asked if this would count. RLeydon advised that there is an expectation that larger developments will deliver their own SANGs, and while there may be some facility provision, such as car parking, it won't be for the whole development.
Cllr Foster asked if a SANG on another development would count. ARobinson stated that some developers would provide a SANG to fulfil their own needs, and if a development is within 1-10 dwellings then the SANG does not need to be within the catchment area.
Cllr Foster commented on the intention of the strategy to bring back equilibrium, stating that every development site would have an impact on Ashridge, and if they want to deter people from Berkhamsted and Tring away from the area then they will need to create a gateway site. ARobinson explained that parts of the borough will have no immediate SANG solution, and current indications are that the Hemel Hempstead area will be covered, and they will need to ensure there is a continual stream of SANG sites coming forward to free up restrictions elsewhere.
Cllr Foster commented on monitoring, noting that the footprint report stated there should be ongoing monitoring with a survey conducted every 3 years and asked if this monitoring would be in place. ARobinson confirmed that there is a governance structure in place, which is in agreement with the other authorities, to monitor the implementation of SANG and SAM and they will report back on progress. In addition to that, footprint surveys will take place every 3 years, and this will allow them to assess the impact the measures are having on Ashridge. Cllr Foster asked if they could therefore have another moratorium in 3 years' time. ARobinson advised that there is also the potential that the restrictions are removed completely and that they could only speculate at this time, though he suggested the mitigations should allow them to ease restrictions in future.
Cllr Sutton asked how Bunker's Park could be improved upon. ARobinson noted that they need to find a balance for all sites to ensure sites aren't overused and degraded, adding that for the SANGs they are proposing, a considerable amount of new investment will be going into these sites.
Cllr Timmis referred to the monitoring, stating that if this is reported back to the Committee then scrutiny can take place. ARobinson advised that they could look at introducing KPIs to the quarterly report, measuring the income received for developers, and could report other items on an annual basis, such as progress the National Trust are having with intervention projects.
Cllr Harden thanked the Committee for their comments. The Committee thanked the officers for their work, noting the amount of time and resource spent on it.
ACTION: Cllr Harden, Cllr Anderson and ARobinson to discuss how to proceed with updates for the Committee.
ACTION: ARobinson to discuss review period with Natural England and report back to the Committee on any updates.