District planners have green-lit a proposal for up to 700 new homes in Hitchin – but councillors have warned of a “reality gap” between traffic data and motorists’ experiences in the town.

North Herts Council’s planning committee members said they could find “no legal reason” to refuse the plan for Highover Farm, despite fears the development could add to the district’s traffic woes.

As part of the proposal, applicant BDW Trading will hand Hertfordshire County Council £3.3million for highways improvements in and around the site at Highover Farm.

The land was earmarked for new housing in the North Herts District Plan, which the authority put together and formally adopted in November last year.

Michael Wright, on behalf of the applicant, told councillors the proposal is 100 per cent policy compliant at a meeting on Thursday, October 12.

But more than 1,800 people signed a Change.org petition which labelled the development “irresponsible”.

The petition read: “If it goes ahead, this will be Hitchin’s biggest new housing development in decades and will bring Hitchin’s already congested roads to gridlock.”

Cllr Daniel Wright-Mason, who represents Hitchin Walsworth ward and does not sit on the committee, told his colleagues that neighbours are already “locked into their driveways” as a result of gridlock.

He said: “The reason why this is such an emotive subject and so many of Hitchin’s residents have spoken up is because they know the risks this development poses for Hitchin if it goes wrong.

“Anyone who travels on Cambridge Road at peak times knows how overloaded our road system is already.”

Cllr Wright-Mason said that on the same day as the planning meeting, a breakdown in the Walsworth area of Hitchin led to tailbacks along the A505, into next-door Letchworth.

“Residents were locked into their driveways, unable to get onto the road,” he said.

“This is why the community is engaged in such a big way.

“All they have been given are out-of-date reports that tell them everything is ok on the roads, and that it will be fine to pour another 700 car-dependent homes into the mix.”

Hitchin ‘like other towns has mobility challenges’

Committee members first debated the scheme on Thursday, July 6, when they deferred their decision, asking developers to come back with traffic data newer than the supplied models from 2018.

“Forecasted traffic flows are now lower than presented [in the 2018 assessment], so the [2018] data represents a worst-case scenario, and the traffic impact predicted from this development is deemed low,” Mr Wright explained, referring to the more up-to-date information.

“We acknowledge Hitchin, like other towns, has existing highways and mobility challenges.

“As a responsible developer, we are committed to the delivery and mitigation measures which will help improve the existing situation.”

He added: “Working closely with the county council, a number of potential mitigation schemes have been costed, all involving improvements to active travel and cycle connectivity around Hitchin.

“The precise schemes to be delivered remain at the discretion of the county council, but they can be funded from the proposed … contributions.”

Proposed works to support up to 700 homes, plus a new two-form entry primary school, include a new 30mph speed limit on Stotfold Road – down from up to 60mph.

Agreed schemes also include an extension to town bus 81 into the new estate, a new path between Stotfold Road and the Letchworth Greenway, “shuttle working” traffic lights for the single-lane Woolgrove Road beneath the railway, an eastern railway station entrance at Hitchin, and a “sustainable spine” along the A505 with a continuous cycle route.

Committee member Cllr David Levett made reference to the July meeting and said: “As far as the overall development is concerned, there were no great concerns.

“This is a site in the Local Plan, the number of houses complies, there were no particular problems with that.”

He added the main question was “has the Woolgrove Road [railway bridge] issue been addressed?”

Cllr Levett continued: “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.

“The data says it is acceptable.

“I still doubt the results, I still think it’s going to have more impact than it says.

“But we asked for information, that information has been received.”

Cllr Daniel Allen said: “We as the planning authority have to have legal reasons to say ‘no’ to things.

“I know how bad that traffic is and I drive it all the time.

“This is not the best option but legally, as the planning group, we have to follow what is put out and I find no legal reason to say ‘no’.”

Cllr Nigel Mason said there is a “reality gap” between the models and the queues which motorists find themselves in.

Summarising Hertfordshire County Council’s comments, North Herts Council’s officers wrote in a report: “The highway authority in particular is satisfied that although there would be some increase in traffic arising from the proposed development, this would not have an unacceptable impact on highway safety or result in a residual cumulative impact that would be severe so as to warrant an objection or reason for refusal.”

Councillors voted to grant planning permission seven votes to three.