Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Council could lose power to decide planning applications

PLANNING applications in the Henley area could in future be decided by the Government.

South Oxfordshire District Council may be stripped of its decision-making powers after almost 11 per cent of “major” developments that it refused permission for in the two years to June 2016 were allowed on appeal.

The figure exceeds the Government’s target limit of 10 per cent, according to provisional data from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The council, and nine others in the same position, could be placed in “special measures”, meaning developers would have to apply for permission directly to the Planning Inspectorate.

This arrangement was introduced in 2010 and has already been imposed on several other councils, although no developer has secured permission while it is in place.

The department’s list also includes West Oxfordshire (10.4 per cent) and five others in the South. The national average for successful appeals is 2.8 per cent.

The Government has confirmed that no authorities will be placed in special measures this year but will not say whether this could change in 2018.

South Oxfordshire District Council disputes the figure, saying it is actually 7.49 per cent as the department wrongly counted three appeals which are yet to be decided and another which should have been classed as “minor”.

It says the department has accepted that there is an error and intends to amend the data later this year.

Successful appeals within the two-year timeframe include an application by Graeme Dodd for 159 homes on land north of Littleworth Road in Benson, which was granted in June 2015. Almost 150 residents objected, as did the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the parish council, which said it was over-intensive, fell outside the village’s built-up area and would create traffic problems.

The district council expressed “serious concerns” about the impact on the adjacent conservation area but inspector Paul Clark said none of the objectors’ worries was insurmountable.

Later that year, two planning applications for a total of 200 homes on two sites in Chinnor were allowed by an inspector despite the district council’s refusal. The authority challenged the ruling at the High Court but lost.

Meanwhile, Claire Engbers’ outline application for 95 houses at Thames Farm, off the A4155 near Shiplake, was thrown out by councillors a year ago but approved by a planning inspector in August.

This falls outside the scope of the department’s figures but could be included in a future assessment.

Thames Farm is technically in Harpsden and wasn’t earmarked for development in the parish’s joint neighbourhood plan with Henley but planning officers said the document was invalid as the district council hadn’t secured enough land to meet the next five years’ housing demand.

They said it should be approved as objectors’ concerns about highways safety and the impact on its surroundings could be overcome by imposing planning conditions.

But at a planning committee meeting attended by several hundred objectors, councillors threw it out on the grounds that it wasn’t in the neighbourhood plan and posed a traffic hazard. Appeal inspector John Braithwaite said the new homes were needed to counteract a housing shortfall across the county but the district council and Shiplake Parish Council believe he made “legal errors” and have separately filed for a judicial review of the decision.

Kester George, the chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, which opposed the Thames Farm development, said: “I believe the district council was right to turn Thames Farm down and I’m glad it is challenging the inspector’s judgement as he should have taken more account of our neighbourhood plan.

“Sadly, it seems that the district council and the Government are on a collision course because the Government is so focused on growth in absolute terms and not in a way that benefits us.”

Ken Arlett, chairman of Henley Town Council’s planning committee, said: “At the end of the day, councillors are elected by the people to represent their views. With a lot of applications that come forward, neighbours object for very good reasons and councillors support their objections.

“They have to base their decisions on planning policy and if there’s no valid reason to reject it, they won’t do so. If they do reject it, that’s democracy in action — I don’t mind if a planning inspector disagrees but the council should have the right to make a decision.

“The department should visit and listen to the debate surrounding these issues — planning is very complex and you’d be hard-pushed to argue that councillors aren’t doing a good job. I don’t believe the Government should poke its nose into this.”

Dieter Hinke, a former Henley town councillor who chaired the planning and neighbourhood planning governance committees, said: “The Government isn’t imposing special measures yet but who knows what will happen next spring? I imagine there’d be a danger if something didn’t improve.

“It would be an absolute disaster if South Oxfordshire lost its decision-making powers. The planning officers have done a very good job for many years and if they were allowed to work without outside interference it would be better for the district as a whole.

“I believe political interference in the process is causing this, not bad decision-making by officers. Councillors are ignoring their recommendations for local political reasons, not on sound planning grounds, and this figure shows that.

“Thames Farm dragged on for year after year and so much money has been spent on putting together a case against the officers’ recommendations. Many in the planning world blame politicians who back down on sensitive matters and it seems the problem is worst in affluent areas.”

A district council spokesman said: “The majority of the appeals in question relate to applications which were determined under powers delegated to the head of planning rather than by the council’s planning committee.

“In each case, the council presented a reasoned justification for its decision to the Planning Inspectorate.

“While eight appeals were allowed, no costs were awarded, indicating the inspectors considered reasonable decisions had been made.”

Henley MP John Howell said he supported the district council’s argument and had expressed his concerns to the Department for Communities and Local Government but was awaiting a response.

The department did not respond to a request for comment.

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