The collapse of Uttlesford District Council’s local plan has set alarm bells going off over the border in East Herts with Bishop’s Stortford Town Council’s chair of planning and development Cllr Keith Warnell warning that unplanned development is a threat to his town.

Stortford residents have a right to worry. They are already seeing land between the town and the A120 filled with thousands of new houses. East Herts’ local plan was approved by government inspectors because it made provision for public services, such as new schools and employment sites. This improved infrastructure is not intended to serve Uttlesford’s housing development; it is paid for by East Herts DC and Hertfordshire CC and the S106 agreements signed with developers.

Bishop’s Stortford is set for more than 4,000 new homes in the East Herts Local Plan

There are two key areas of concern:

  • The lack of a plan considerably weakens UDC’s hand when dealing with planning applications over the next two to five years while the council re-drafts its local plan.
  • The potential for a new Uttlesford local plan to place heavy emphasis on urban extensions to Bishop’s Stortford in the long-term, to 2031 – and perhaps in the following 15-year local plan to 2045.

In both scenarios, Bishop’s Stortford’s provision of leisure facilities, schools, railway services, shops, buses and employment opportunities will be used as justification for housing development – all courtesy of Stortford and Hertfordshire tax payers.

Short-Term Planning Chaos

Last week, I wrote about the problems Stansted will face due to the lack of a local plan. These problems will also be faced by other settlements throughout the district – and settlements neighbouring Uttlesford, such as Bishop’s Stortford, Braintree and Chelmsford.

Bishop’s Stortford Independent, 22nd January 2020

These fears are shared by Cllr Warnell who told the Bishop’s Stortford Independent this week: “When a local plan is out of date, all housing and development policies are invalid and developers can build largely where they like in the district within general planning regulations, and, if contested by the local authority, will often appeal and win that appeal on grounds of a silent local plan.”

Cllr Warnell added: “Specifically, the potential impact on Bishop’s Stortford is that developers could build right up to our boundary, and as we are the largest local town with an increasing number of great facilities here, there would be an impact on traffic, parking, public transport, education provision and the like when we get nothing from Uttlesford District Council in Section 106/New Homes Bonus to improve our facilities and infrastructure.”

Long-Term: Stortford Carries the Burden for Uttlesford?

These are immediate concerns relating to UDC’s planning policy vacuum. In the long-term, UDC will have to formulate a plan that passes muster with government inspectors. Cllr Warnell noted that “An earlier iteration of [Uttlesford’s] plan saw development proposals up to the Essex edge of Birchanger Wood and along the Essex side of Hallingbury Road, literally on our doorstep by yards!”

He was referring a 2015 appraisal by UDC of potential new settlements within Uttlesford which proposed urban extensions of Bishop’s Stortford, known as Area of Search 11a and 11b, lying within Uttlesford. At the time, UDC stated likely benefits would include:

  • Close proximity to Bishop’s Stortford and a range of public transport options which are accessible via Stansted Road to the west, including rail links at Bishop’s Stortford Station
  • The area is well connected and adjacent to Stansted Road industrial estate as well as the strategic road network for the benefit of any employment development.

Furthermore, there were two other areas of search for new settlements – northwest and southeast of Junction 8 of the M11 – that were predicated on proximity to the growing East Herts town. Both proposals rested on exploiting Bishop’s Stortford’s infrastructure, paid for by the town’s residents. It would have been a conveniently cheap and easy option for Uttlesford, provided it could prove the existence of exceptional circumstances exist and strategic considerations that merit release of Green Belt land.

UDC opted instead for new garden communities near Great Chesterford, the Eastons and Stebbing – the latter two were not without controversy in Bishop’s Stortford, which struggles with commuter parking from outside the town.

Urban extensions were rightly regarded as lacking sustainability. However, with the “Hellsenham” new town proposal ruled out in the previous failed local plan and the current draft local plan now in limbo after being panned by government inspectors, urban extensions to Stortford could be revived.

As new settlements are repeatedly dismissed by the government, Uttlesford may feel it has no other option but to expand existing settlements to meet government expectations of housing growth.

UDC would, as always, skimp on investment on public services in the Stansted area, claiming that Bishop’s Stortford has sufficient capacity. Uttlesford already has a parasitical approach to Stortford’s services. Take, for instance, the sports facilities and recreation strategy, which suggests that Stansted is served by plenty of local swimming pools over the county border, so it has no need to invest in a swimming pool in Stansted. This excuse is also used to withhold our fair share of investment in football and cricket pitches and pour money into Saffron Walden’s facilities.

Essex County Council has also taken a similar approach in the past towards secondary school provision. Stansted’s secondary school became a sink school, driven almost to closure, because ECC could rely on Bishop’s Stortford’s schools to take our children. Only when those schools were crammed to capacity and unable to take children from Stansted did attention focus on improving our local secondary school provision. It helped that Stansted’s county councillor was appointed to oversee the county’s education portfolio, giving political momentum to bring Forest Hall School from the brink and on the path to success.

Political Incentive to Protect Walden and Dunmow

What is absolutely certain is that UDC will not countenance Saffron Walden or Great Dunmow being the focus of urban extension. Residents for Uttlesford’s very purpose is to oppose any large-scale development around these settlements, for it is the ultimate party of populist Nimbyism and elitist gentrification and these towns are its political strongholds. The ultra-Nimbys possess an institutional culture of indifference towards the needs of this part of the district when it comes to planning and public services.

For Stansted, the R4U administration is a disaster as it concentrates investment in its wards and ignores the needs of wards it does not control. The R4U’s lack of awareness and political neglect of southwest Uttlesford may not only lead to a worse local plan, but infrastructure overload in East Herts.

Parish councils in our part of the district will have to work with Bishop’s Stortford to ensure that any new development has adequate investment. Uttlesford should pay for decent services of Uttlesford residents, East Herts should not foot the bill.