Hertsmere Borough Council’s Local Plan consultation is on track to be the biggest in the council’s history, but opposition groups have accused senior councillors of "avoiding the public" during the digital-only process.

More than 3,500 people have responded to the council's draft local plan which sets out which sites have been deemed most appropriate to meet housing targets of at least 760 homes per year over the next 15 years.

However, opposition groups have criticised the decision to hold a digital-only consultation, claiming it has provided an opportunity for councillors to avoid answering questions from the public concerned about the amount of green belt at risk.

At a council member planning panel meeting on Wednesday, council commissioned public relations firm Grayling said the consultation has provided the council "value for money", gaining more responses than in the past  at a cost of £28,000, rather than the £40,000 estimated to hold in-person events.

But Hertsmere Labour group leader Cllr Jeremy Newmark said it was "absolute nonsense" to say the lack of in-person meetings was worth the saving, which he claims leaves a "huge gaping hole" in the consultation’s findings.

He added his party had been holding in-person events which had reached residents that may have been otherwise unaware of the consultation, and suggested the digital consultation allowed other councillors to avoid scrutiny.

He said: "...to me this is less about saving £12,000 but more about representatives of this authority not wanting to put themselves up on a platform and answer questions directly from members of the public."

The claims were refuted by Conservative councillor Harvey Cohen, who is leading the local plan process in Hertsmere.

Cllr Cohen said: "We just can’t win Jeremy,  I remember you at full council mocking us about the 2,000 (responses) last time. We’ve now got 3,590 responses so far, as we’ve said the most successful engagement Hertsmere has ever done, and I think in the times of a pandemic this has been very good.

"We’ve not shied away, I’ve actually attended meetings online and I did attend a meeting in person...you’d have moaned if we had spent too much on face-to-face town hall meetings, you would have said 'you were only meeting the people who are actually aware of the engagement'. We can’t win, we try our best."

Cllr Cohen added the council would meet with Grayling following the consultation to establish what can be learned for consultations going forward.

The draft local plan consultation has been running since late October and will end on December 6. Any revisions to the plan will made during the Spring before another period of consultation before the plan is submitted to the Secretary of State for examination.

Cllr Cohen has said if there are changes to national planning policy - especially in relation to housing targets - during the process, these would be reflected in any revised plan.