A council is exploring whether it can use its vast green belt as a reason to get its housing targets reduced.

Last month, senior members of Dacorum Borough Council voted to defer submitting its Local Plan to Government citing "uncertainty" over national planning policy.

Just like councils in Watford, Three Rivers, Hertsmere - and everywhere else in the country - council officers in Dacorum have been working to identify space for thousands of new homes up until 2038.

The borough has been tasked to build just over 1,000 a year which means building into Dacorum's green belt.

But there are signs the Conservative-controlled council is not willing to sit back and readily accept the targets.

In a detailed planning document presented to the council's Cabinet on July 27, members were referred to several pieces of Government correspondence which provide context as to why the council has chosen to pause its local plan process.

Chiefly, this was the publication of a Government document titled 'Changes to the Current Planning System' along with 'Planning for the Future' - the council says both of these policy papers were published in the lead up to the launch of its local plan consultation.

The council says both documents are "significant"; the former because it sets out possible revisions to calculating housing needs, and the latter because of the reforms it proposes to the planning system.

Watford Observer: Dacorum Borough Council offices in Hemel Hempstead. Credit: Google MapsDacorum Borough Council offices in Hemel Hempstead. Credit: Google Maps

When the council went out to public consultation, it did so on the proviso it needed to build 922 homes a year up until 2038 - based on 2018 data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

But in December 2020, the Government decided to proceed with 2014 ONS figures instead - something which has been criticised by Three Rivers Lib Dem councillor Matthew Bedford - and Dacorum's targets were returned to a previous figure of 1,023 homes.

The council says it was also written to last December about "standard methodology" - this is the term the Government uses to calculate housing targets. This letter claimed the standard methodology provides a "starting point for determining the level of need for the area".

This is what Watford Tory MP Dean Russell referred to in a letter he wrote to Watford borough councillors last month, just hours before a full council meeting was scheduled to discuss the submission of the local plan.

Mr Russell was accused by Watford's Liberal Democrat mayor Peter Taylor of trying to "sabotage" the local plan process and his letter was dismissed. Councillors subsequently unanimously approved the submission of the local plan.

Related: MP's letter about Watford local plan sparks political row

Related: Mayor accuses MP of trying to 'sabotage' Watford Local Plan

Related: Council snubs MP claim and presses on with 12,000 homes plan

Ben Martin, the council’s head of planning and development, said housing targets can only be challenged in "very exceptional circumstances", such as when there are high flood risks or large areas of high-quality green belt.

He added: "None of these criteria apply to Watford so it is almost impossible for us to challenge the figure through the Local Plan process."

The country's housing minister also wrote to all MPs last December stating the standard method "recognises that not everywhere will be able to meet their housing need in full – for example, where available land is constrained due to the green belt and an area therefore has to plan for fewer homes".

In an area like Watford, green belt is not necessarily relevant as the town is mainly brownfield land. But for more rural areas like Three Rivers, Hertsmere, and Dacorum, the minister's letter offers hope that targets could be reduced.

And then in June this year, during a parliamentary debate on planning decisions and local involvement, Dacorum council papers claim the housing minister restated the Government’s commitment to continue to "protect the green belt" and "explicitly stated" local authorities "should not develop on the green belt, save for in exceptional circumstances, and local plan making should recognise the green belt as a constraint on numbers".

However, there is evidence comments from the housing minister in Parliament may not reflect the reality on the ground.

Cabinet papers state evidence from other local plans that have been examined since 2020 "clearly shows" local authorities are being "pushed very hard" to meet their targets.

And Dacorum council has also pointed to a recent case in Colney Heath in St Albans district, in which a Government planning inspector overturned a council's refusal for a major development on green belt land.

Councils have also been told to provide an up-to-date local plan by the end of 2023 and also been reminded of the Government’s ambition to deliver 300,000 homes per year across the country by the mid-2020s.

Watford Observer: The borough of Dacorum falls within the red lines, including towns of Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted and villages like Bovingdon. Credit: Google MapsThe borough of Dacorum falls within the red lines, including towns of Hemel Hempstead and Berkhamsted and villages like Bovingdon. Credit: Google Maps

In light of all of the correspondence it has received from Government, Dacorum Borough Council has decided to delay submitting its Local Plan.

Council papers state: "The uncertainty surrounding the details and timing of the proposed wider planning reforms poses challenges for Dacorum in preparing its Local Plan.....Substantial progress has been made in the last 18 months to develop the new Local Plan for Dacorum.

"However, officers note a marked change in Government advice since the launch of the recent consultation, particularly with regards to the application of constraints, such as the green belt, in determining the final housing figure for Local Plans.

"Following the clarifications issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the statements made by the housing minister in Parliament and elsewhere, officers will undertake further evidence gathering to determine whether it is appropriate for Dacorum to meet the full housing requirement as set out in the standard methodology.

"This will focus on assessing whether there are 'strong reasons' for Dacorum to propose a lower level of development in Dacorum."

The council knows there are risks involved in this decision - the Government could to intervene and take control of plan making in Dacorum if the council misses its deadline.

The deferral is also set to cost the council an extra £600,000.