St Albans City Council update.

Mix Mornings with Nick Hazell

Councillor Chris White, leader of St Albans District Council, joins us for his monthly update. We cover a plan to bring additional markets to the city centre, plus government frustration with the council’s long planning application delays.

More about: Planning, Property

This is a computer generated transcript of this audio item

Nick Hazell (00:01.842)
With us now on Mix Mornings with his monthly update from St. Albans District Council. Is the leader of that council, Councillor Chris White. Good morning Chris.

Chris White (00:10.306)
Good morning. Nice to be back.

Nick Hazell (00:12.174)
Yes, it’s good to have you back too and glad to hear that you’re fully restored to good health. Let’s start with something positive, shall we? The Mayor’s Pride Awards took place. Isn’t it great that we live in a place where there are so many people doing great things?

Chris White (00:28.15)
Yes, I think people tend to forget that about all communities actually, even the ones in other parts of the country we might not want to live in. Stuff is going on and it’s not stuff which is particularly controlled by the council, most commonly not controlled by or pushed along by the council at all, and that’s how it should be. So ordinary people do fabulous things and it’s always amazing how little one knows, however much one buries oneself in community activities.

Nick Hazell (00:55.674)

Chris White (00:57.006)
the stuff going on there and you think gosh I didn’t know that.

Nick Hazell (01:00.43)
Yeah, absolutely. I think we find that out all the time here at the radio station, actually, things that pop out that we just didn’t know. So, that’s a lovely thing to start with. And we might get some additional markets in St Albans, I gather. Of course, we have the Saturday and Wednesday charter market, but there’s a proposal that we might extend that out to the five days of the week with smaller markets.

Chris White (01:05.845)
Of course.

Chris White (01:15.062)
with. Yeah.

Chris White (01:24.366)
Well, we’ve got to do something because despite what some people like to say about the market, it’s a rip-roaring success, leaving aside the fact that it won an award, which is not nothing. It came as a surprise to us. It’s the national market’s body. It is now extremely busy to the point at which we’ve got traders who can’t come along because it’s at full capacity. I’m even getting the odd person writing and saying, oh, I don’t like the market.

Nick Hazell (01:49.234)

Chris White (01:53.378)
full of people and it’s awful for that reason. You know this is a bit of a change from about a year ago. You never can win and so the idea is to say well you know you can’t build up as it were with the market but you can build on to other days and there are some snacks about that which is the existing street traders they’re called. This is different from our market trader and that would mean that they would become part of the market and that would change their fees and that’s one of the…

Nick Hazell (01:57.27)
Well, that’s the you never can win, isn’t it? But there we go.

Nick Hazell (02:18.598)
ride. So things like the current bread stall and those kind of places. Okay. And so what’s going to happen then? Is it definitely going ahead? What the council would like it to go ahead? What are you thinking?

Chris White (02:23.266)

Chris White (02:32.842)
Well, this is what people hate when the leader comes back and looks at the paper and think, not so sure about this. There was quite a problem in the papers, and I became quite uncomfortable about that because there was a table which mixed traders and pitchers, and that sounds like a not very important issue, but a pitch is how much space you’re occupying. The trader is a trader, so you can actually get, I think you can see it on the daily charter market. Some traders have three pitchers and they pay three times as much.

And so there was an anomaly there in the papers, and I wasn’t really convinced that the level of consultation that had taken place was enough. I mean, you ask the street traders, and they’re not keen. Well, that’s not surprising. But what about the market traders? What do they feel? Because they’re paying much, much more than the street traders. And what about other shops where there is a level of competition, quite a severe level of competition?

position sometimes and you get the odd moan about the fact that it’s very well that you know the market traders get a very good deal and I have to pay business rates and this that and the other and utility bills name fair and all of these objections are valid and yet they need to be in front of councillors so that the councillor can take a view. We also have to remember that there are people who want to join the market on other days because that’s the only days that they can do.

Nick Hazell (03:35.966)

Chris White (03:57.45)
because the Saturday market is essentially full, how are we going to balance up all these things? So more information was clearly needed but equally we don’t want to hang around, we don’t need to make an early decision and that’s why it’s coming back with a consultation immediately after the elections because of the normal rules about not doing consultations within elections apply, but doing that swiftly but efficiently and also I think I need to have a chat to the street traders one-to-one, there’s an awful lot of…

Nick Hazell (04:15.304)

Chris White (04:27.274)
The normal is the normal problem of an awful lot of noise in terms of social media, but not much light. So clarifying what’s really going on and what the potential options might be.

Nick Hazell (04:37.555)

So after the local election, so sort of mid-May, there’ll be a consultation. Will that be the form of the consultation that you literally will walk around to talk to the street traders or is there going to be something more formal? Right.

Chris White (04:49.726)
No, it’d be a bit more scientific than that. And the street traders, the street traders have already been consulted. So it’s a question of actually following up on the consultation with them, saying, look, that, you know, what might be bearable given the need to move on and the fact there is quite a good deal for a long time compared with, you know, equivalent traders on other days which have been part of the market. So that’s where you need a conversation. Whereas with the…

Nick Hazell (04:56.871)

Chris White (05:18.706)
existing market traders and business premises there needs to be consultation in the ordinary sense which so far hasn’t happened which is why I was getting in.

Nick Hazell (05:29.046)
Okay, but we’ll look out for that sort of early to mid-May then in terms of how people can make their inputs.

Alright, now some news I gather that you’re in a bit of trouble with Michael Gove and the government, aren’t you?

Chris White (05:46.898)
We’re used to being in trouble with Michael Gove. He and I have a lively exchange, shall we say, just before Christmas. And that was over the local plan. This is over something different, which is the speed of the council gets through what is nowadays called development management, what most people still call planning applications. And it’s not been a secret that St. Ormond has not been as fast as it would like, and all sorts of reasons for that. It’s not wildly easy to recruit in this part of the world.

planning fees have been set too low and an awful lot of planning applications come through in some orbits. It is red hot. Every ward gets two a week and there are 20 wards. Just, you know, do the maths. There’s a lot going on. And so different categories. There are majors which are 10 dwellings or more. There’s slightly more definitions here but this is crudely it. And there are non-majors which you thought would be called a minor but they’re not.

and it’s on non-majors that the council’s been slightly slow on the government target. The government targets 70% being turned around within a period of time and we’re currently on 69% which is not where we wanted to be. But we had spoken to the government about it and said look we are having a problem we would like to tap into your backlog fund which is being made to made available to various councils and I said fine that arrived in January and then

just over a month later they say, oh right, you’ve been very naughty and so we’re going to change the rules. Well, you know, logic there isn’t great, but the rule change just applying to planning applications between one and nine households is that if a developer wants, they can go straight to appeal, don’t have to go to the council at all, which they may like.

Nick Hazell (07:34.046)
So if they go to appeal, does that mean that the councillors don’t get involved at all and therefore there’s kind of issues around councillors actually knowing about the area? What is the appeals process or do councillors get involved in that?

Chris White (07:51.142)
No, councillors don’t get involved at all. Not where they were, particularly anyway, when trying to basically make this a bit more, get councillors to concentrate on the majors, they’re really big ones rather than on these. So the officials, officers as we call them, will get involved in the normal way, they’ll write a report as they would normally, but instead of being put in front of a senior manager for decision or a council committee for decision, it goes straight to appeal.

The massive disadvantage of that for a developer is you can’t appeal against an appeal. So elsewhere in the country, a lot of developers said, well, hang on a second, you know, that’s a bit high, this is a bit high risk. It would still be easier to go to the council if we don’t know what they’re doing, they appeal anyway. But if they granted the permission, then I don’t have to go through a bunch of people in Bristol and try and persuade them. So in many ways, it doesn’t speed things up because the actual decision-making part.

Nick Hazell (08:25.919)
Got it. Okay.

Chris White (08:48.33)
as opposed to doing the work, you know, the research and visiting the site and looking at sight lines and lights and so forth. That’s what takes the time. Having a reporter in front of you and someone reaching a decision doesn’t take much time at all. So it’s not going to help.

Nick Hazell (09:01.758)
Got it. OK. So with this, the grant money that you did get back in January, are you expecting things to speed up in any case through the planning process now? And if so, by how much? Right.

Chris White (09:15.038)
In due course, I mean designation doesn’t help because you have to do the earlier applications first, which is not how you clear a backlog, any fool knows that. So, but yes, I mean we will clear it, we will talk to other councils for instance. Some councils in Hertfordshire have spare capacity because it’s in Auburns which glows red hot in terms of planning applications compared with some other districts. So it’s using that additional resource just to crack through some of these things.

So yes, that’s certainly the intention. We’re not proud of having this problem, which has been bubbling along for some many years now. And we want to sort it out. It’s one of the reasons why we changed the system of planning committees, because there were too many of those, and that was an additional break on effective and efficient decision-making.

Nick Hazell (10:05.735)
Any thoughts on when things will have speeded up and by how much?

Chris White (10:09.846)
Well, we’re designated for a year, which is the norm. You can clear out before then. You can be designated for longer than a year. But it will get a little bit worse before it gets better. Because as you get through these things, to some degree, the more difficult ones are the ones which are still bumbling along there. So statistically, it will get worse. But I mean, it’s basically a bit like the round of the Global Planets. It’s a political game rather than a planning issue, because we’re not the worst.

Council in these terms of non-major applications in the country, 10 which are actually slower than us, and the worst is in fact Richmondshire which is a Prime Minister’s constituency. You and I couldn’t possibly comment on whether this was party political, but you never know. There may be an issue here. But it’s really trying actually, and it’s basically the government saying that staff aren’t very good, and that’s not true, and that’s not great for their morale.

And I want to say here that I don’t think anyone’s done anything wrong. We’ve got to sort it out. There is pressure. All organizations from time to time get pressure, and they are by and large doing their best.

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