Airfield closure announced

Stunt Plane Panshanger

Our fears are realised.

The land owners of Panshanger airfield have decided not to renew the lease of the flying school.

The official airfield closure press release can be read here.

As things now stand on the 21st September the flying school and aircraft shall have to vacate the site. This leaves the site available to be included as a major housing development in the forthcoming local plan. Should our council decide to make it a ‘broad location for growth’ in a couple of months time, around a thousand homes could eventually appear across this large greenfield site. A site which is categorised, wrongly in our view, as a brownfield site.

The perfect storm…

As we know house prices are now surging skyward and so land prices follow suit. The family owners of the airfield site reside in Jersey, a tax haven. They have owned it for decades; it currently sits within the Jersey registered holding company, Mariposa Investments, and has done since 1976. As land without outline planning permission it has relatively little value. Development land in the South East is of course much sought after and a site this size, with planning permission, would be worth many millions of pounds. Mariposa are obviously well aware of that.

In recent years the government has initiated a root and branch reform of the planning system, ‘reducing over 1,300 pages of often impenetrable jargon in 44 separate documents into a clear, readable guide of 50 pages’. In addition every local authority must produce a local plan that sets out housing targets until around 2030.

[box title=”Please write the council yourself to object”]We now  have a template letter available for people to download and send to the council and councillors. You can download our suggested letter HERE, add your name and address, change it as you so wish and send it to the address supplied. This letter is in response to the many requests we’ve had for a letter template.[/box]

The airfield site is an attractive proposition to the council as a place in which to grant outline planning permission; hundreds of homes on one big site that the land owners want to sell – especially if it’s at development land prices, rather than the far lower agricultural prices. Government policy now makes it easier for this to happen. It appears Mariposa are seizing their moment to realise a vast profit.

While this enforced housing push from central government is marketed as being locally led and with the participation of local communities it really isn’t. Take these well polished government sound bites for example:

‘The Government aim is for every area to have a clear local plan which sets out local people’s views of how they wish their community to develop…’

‘Local plans have a responsibility to meet the objectively-assessed needs of their area for homes, business premises, schools and other social and cultural facilities, while protecting and enhancing the natural and historic environment.’

‘enshrining the local plan – produced by local people – as the keystone of the planning system’

‘encouraging the use of brownfield land in a way determined locally.’

All this and more available here.

Our council chose this site as an area for potential development before carrying out its only public consultation on the issue in 2012/13. Local people were not asked whether they wanted this site allocated for housing, they were only told that it would be. The council received thousands of objections to their decision through their poorly publicised consultation. The big question now is will they take notice of the widespread local objection, or just ignore it and carry on as before. The fine sentiment expressed in the government quotes above appears to bear no resemblance to what is really happening on the ground here in Panshanger. Here, local people are not deciding anything. Council officers and councillors who live elsewhere are doing the deciding, it’s going on right now.

The council has a shiny new ‘Statement of Community Involvement’ policy.

On page 10 it states:

‘The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), published in 2012, emphasises the need to involve all sections of the community in plan-making. There are many individuals, groups and organisations in Welwyn Hatfield who will be given the opportunity to be involved in the preparation of planning documents.’

And:

‘In addition, there are a number of other types of bodies, groups and organisations that the council considers are equally as important to consult and these are identified below:

Environmental groups; Groups representing users, and the providers, of leisure, sport and recreation Health, education, social service and community based service providers;Local residents and community associations;

Equally, It is very important that the wider community-people who live, work, run businesses and study in the borough –are consulted.’

This group, Panshanger People, has not been contacted or consulted as part of the plan making process, as far as we are aware neither have other local groups. Putting out a consultation when the key decision about where the housing will go has already been made is not involving groups in plan making as far as we are concerned. The only dialogue we have had with the council over this has been at our instigation, and it has been very limited.

Now we have a situation where a landowner is sitting on a big chunk of valuable land that it knows the council wants to develop. The local people in this age of localism have had very little input as to whether this land should be developed in this way at all, despite a raft of new legislation that was trumpeted as giving them a say in such matters.  Our group has even used the new Asset of Community Value legislation to apply for first refusal on the land should it become available, that application has been roundly rejected by the council.

The next milestone in all this is the consultation due in ‘the Autumn’. This will reveal how much the overall number of homes to be built will change by, using updated population projection data. It will almost certainly rise from the current 7,200 figure for Welwyn Hatfield, perhaps to over 10,000.

People may remember the ‘No Way to 10k’ campaign a few years ago and get a sense of déjà vu. Back then the high court overturned the local housing target set by central government. Now we are told planning powers have been devolved to local councils, and that now local people can decide on housing numbers and locations. This seems simply untrue based on what we are now seeing. Who around here is getting a say?

The biggest fear harboured by many is how will all this extra demand on services and infrastructure affect current residents?  What detailed studies have been done to ascertain how Panshanger would cope if it grew by 50%? There are targets being set for housing, but what about infrastructure such as:

  • GP surgeries
  • Dentists
  • Primary care centres and clinics
  • Schools and nurseries (which are already way over subscribed)
  • Community Health and Social Care
  • Local retail and parking for it
  • Public transport (the town centre is around 3 miles away)
  • Community facilities for all age groups (very little today for some age groups)
  • New roads and parking for hundreds of additional cars.

It’s not enough to say that these things will be provided; there are no guarantees that any of them will. If we look back to when the Bovis homes were built in the 80’s nothing additional to serve those new residents was put in. Even the school that was planned back then failed to materialise.

There is a major concern that the quality of life in Panshanger will deteriorate. Queues and congestion will be commonplace and there will be a need to travel further afield for the essential goods and services we can get locally today.

All of this is not a concern to those who don’t live here. For the house building companies and aggregate companies, such as Lafarge Tarmac, this is a business opportunity. We already know from the last consultation that they are pushing for even higher house numbers covering even more of our green spaces. There are powerful lobbyists out there pushing the council for this, we must make sure our side of the story is heard and acted upon. If we cannot get our voice heard then the localism agenda can be proven to be merely smoke and mirrors, not delivering at all what it says on the tin.

We at Panshanger People are calling for people to support our position by contacting us through this website and adding your name to our number. So we can keep you updated and add you to our number making us a bigger, stronger, group overall. Please go to our contact page and get in touch if you haven’t already done so.

We also ask people to write to the Council Leader and head of planning letting them know of their objections in no uncertain terms. We will shortly be providing a letter template to help people do this more easily, check back on the site very soon.

It is important that we make our collective views known now.

Panshanger councillors have told us they are against the airfield being developed for housing, Roger Trigg, Executive Member for Planning, Housing and Community recently stated:

“I want to make sure any development is sympathetic to the will and priorities of local people. I’ll fight for what matters to you, which includes opposing the airfield site…I oppose the development on the airfield.” (April 2014).

We expect all of them to take up this cause on our behalf.

We are not anti-housing per se…

To be clear, we do accept that there is a need for housing in the borough, but it’s a question of sharing the burden when it comes to where they will go across the borough.

People have an expectation that this housing would also include useful numbers of ‘affordable housing’. Affordable housing is not council housing (local authorities no longer build council houses), instead it is part buy/part rent housing and housing association rented housing that can charge rent of no more than 80% of full private market rental price. This still leaves many people priced out of the market of course. Until recently all new developments had to include 30% affordable housing, however that percentage is falling and the possibility of opting out from the obligation altogether now exists for house builders, thanks to a loophole introduced to by the government a couple of years ago which has been quite widely used so far.

In short, this proposed development seems unlikely to make much of a dent in the very long council housing waiting list. Recent figures show that there are well over 2,000 people on that list, most of them being in bands D and E, which means they have very little chance of actually being offered a property from the list as they are not perceived to be in enough need to qualify. Local authority housing is also being sold off at the same time of course, under the right to buy scheme. In 2013-14 about 120 properties were sold off to private tenants. This data and more can be found here:

http://www.welhat.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=9123&p=0

It could be estimated that if the 700 homes are built perhaps only 120 or so would be labelled as ‘affordable housing’ – quite possibly a much lower number than that.  With demand at over 2,000 homes currently, as per the council’s Housing Need Register, and the year-on-year sale of existing stock at about 120 a year, it seems apparent that this development will not deliver the chance of an affordable property to most people currently in search of a place to live that they can afford. The argument that this development will deliver significant housing numbers to those that most need it in the borough seems unrealistic based on this analysis.

So what may happen now if the airfield closes in September?

If the airfield is vacated and site left empty it is sure to attract unwanted attention from vandals and others who may seek to make use of the empty hangers and wide open spaces.

If the council chooses to permit development of the site Herts County Council has a legal right to first extract any aggregates (gravel) from the site for as long as it takes to remove it. This could mean we have a gravel pit and workings in our midst with all the noise, traffic, and dust that go with it. This battle was previously won a few years ago through the successful FAME campaign. If this goes ahead then that battle was hard fought, and won, in vain.

Panshanger People would be keen to encourage other options that may allow an airfield to continue in some form. Nothing bigger or possibly noisier than what we have now, but perhaps something that contributes to the local economy, provides employment and training,  and maintains the link with aviation that has existed here since the second world war.

Finally, many newcomers to WGC think that Panshanger was named after the airfield and the hangers. In fact this is just coincidence, it was named after stately Panshanger House which was demolished in 1953 and replaced by gravel extraction workings. Now, 60 years later, the airfield itself looks set to be lost.  To make way for housing  that will probably be out of reach to most of the local people in need of a home here.

Panshanger People urge all those who share our view and fears to add themselves to our number and write to the council to express their objections to this ill thought out plan. The fears around inadequate infrastructure for all these extra people alone is reason enough to vehemently oppose this plan.

We hope you will join us.

[box title=”Please write the council yourself to object?”]We now  have a template letter available for people to download and send to the council and councillors. You can download our suggested letter HERE, add your name and address, change it as you so wish and send it to the address supplied. This letter is in response to the many requests we’ve had for a letter template.[/box]
Panshanger airfield closure

Just part of the countryside we will lose if the area is built over.

Leaflet/letter drop off: If you want to drop off a leaflet or letter for us to deliver to the council on your behalf please drop them to Escape Therapies at Moors Walk shops or 76, Bakers Grove, AL7 2EE.