Friday, 20 July 2018

Housing plan is worthless

THE Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan is effectively worthless, the Henley Standard can reveal.

THE Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan is effectively worthless, the Henley Standard can reveal.

The document, which cost £90,000 to compile and was approved in a referendum less than six months ago, no longer has the legal weight to protect the area from unwanted development.

This is because South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, has failed to identify enough land across South Oxfordshire to meet housing demand for the next five years.

It means that new sites must be considered to make up the shortfall, including Thames Farm, a greenfield plot off the A4155 near Shiplake, even though this was excluded from the plan.

The neighbourhood plan identifies 11 sites where about 500 new homes should be built by 2027 in order to meet Government targets. It took three years to compile by a group of volunteers, overseen by consultant Nexus Planning, and was paid for by Henley Town Council.

It went through several rounds of public consultation and was backed by 2,105 out of 2,576 voters in the March referendum.

When the process started in 2012, the district council said the final document would be legally binding and that plans by developers for other sites could be refused.

However, council officers say this no longer applies because of the couhcil’s failure to identify enough development land across the district and its own local plan, of which the neighbourhood plan is part, is invalid.

As a result, officers have recommended that plans to build 95 homes at Thames Farm are approved by the council’s planning committee next week, saying that the benefits of development now outweigh the arguments against it.

Claire Engbers, who owns the land, is seeking outline planning permission for the scheme, meaning she only wants to agree the principle of development and the access arrangements at this stage. She has previously applied for consent for 110 homes. This was refused but she successfully appealed at the High Court, resulting in a planning inquiry that will be heard in November.

Mrs Engbers’s most recent application, submitted in March, includes more landscaping and public green space plus two play areas, allotments, an extra public footpath along the A4155 and an overall reduction in hard surfacing.

Thirty-eight dwellings, or 40 per cent, would be “affordable” with rents or purchase prices fixed below market rates.

Vehicular access would be off the main road, with a “ghost island” painted on the tarmac so drivers could safely turn on to the site, and there would be several pedestrian entrances.

The town council and Harpsden and Shiplake parish councils have both objected, as have 241 residents, the Henley Society, the Chiltern Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

They argue the development would erode the area’s rural character and cause traffic problems.

However, the district council’s officers say the scheme would help to tackle the housing shortage and 231 people have written letters of support.

Over the past year, the council has lost several appeals after applicants successfully argued it didn’t have a five-year land supply.

Until recently, it had denied this, saying there was a shortfall at Didcot but the rest of the district was on track and any problems would be resolved.

In a report to the planning committee, officer Emma Bowerman says: “Applications for housing should now be considered in the context of the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

“As the council cannot currently demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites, the policies for the supply of housing within the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan are also out of date.

“Although making a meaningful contribution towards the housing shortfall in the district, it does not follow that the neighbourhood plan area has already provided its ‘fair share’ of housing sites and should be protected from speculative developments in response to the five-year land supply shortfall.

“It also does not follow… that conflict with the neighbourhood plan would be sufficient in itself to withhold planning permission.

“The applicant has a housebuilder to take the development forward and I am not aware of any reason why this site would not be delivered in a timely manner. The provision of 95 homes would make a notable contribution to the council’s housing shortfall.”

Ms Bowerman accepts it is a “finely balanced” decision and that there are “sound reasons” for excluding Thames Farm from the neighbourhood plan, such as a preference for building on previously developed land, the distance from Henley and the impact on the landscape.

However, she says that allowing the scheme wouldn’t “significantly undermine” the plan as there are still valid grounds for rejecting extra development elsewhere in Henley and Harpsden.

These include being in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or on a flood plain, neither of which apply to Thames Farm.

She says that although there is a shortage of places at Shiplake Primary School, there is room on school buses to shuttle children to Henley instead and that Oxfordshire County Council, the education authority, is happy with this.

Ms Bowerman says there were relatively few businesses and services in Shiplake but the site has good train and bus links to Reading and Henley, which are better equipped.

Mrs Engbers would have to contribute £95,000 towards increasing the frequency of Arriva’s 800 and 850 routes.

Ms Bowerman says Mrs Engbers couldn’t shrink her scheme any further as it would be an inefficient use of land and more space for housing would be needed elsewhere.

She continues: “The loss of some green fields is inevitable to secure the levels of housing required.

“Given the very substantial area of our district that is covered by protected landscapes…, the opportunity to provide new homes on a site unaffected by these designations weighs in its favour.

“Overall, I am satisfied that there are no adverse impacts which, either individually or together, are sufficient to indicate that development should be restricted.”

Dieter Hinke, a former chairman of the town council’s neighbourhood planning governance committee who now heads the steering group responsible for implementing its policies, said he was disappointed.

He said: “When we started the process, Nexus warned it wasn’t worth it if the district didn’t have a five-year land supply. The district council told us not to worry but if I’d known this would happen I wouldn’t have bothered. If you don’t have that protection, what’s the point?

“It’s a big let-down and the district council should be held accountable.

“This doesn’t only affect Henley and Harpsden but has implications for places like Woodcote who also produced a neighbourhood plan which presumably is now outdated like ours.

“The council tried to deny the land shortage but now it’s being frank and open because it can’t afford to lose any more appeals.

“It knows Thames Farm is also likely to win on appeal because the only valid counter-argument was not being in the neighbourhood plan. It’s disappointing but we can’t do much more until a decision is made.”

Henley town, district and county councillor David Nimmo Smith, who chaired the town’s planning committee when the neighbourhood plan was voted on, will speak against Mrs Engbers’ application at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

He said: “It’s disappointing that we believed the land supply was there when it wasn’t.

“The district says our plan is now subservient to making up the difference but we spent a lot of time, money and effort on it. Why should it be derailed by problems at a higher level? We shouldn’t suffer because of that.”

Kester George, chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, said: “We are deeply upset that the district council would discard the neighbourhood plan as it took a great deal of time, money and scrupulous care.

“The council has got itself into a frightful muddle and seems to have forgotten that its shortage of housing land emerged after it approved the plan for independent examination.

“It seems absurd that developers can affect land supply by sitting on plots after getting planning permission. That’s what is behind this — the district council should be judged solely on the number of approvals it awards.

“However, while we appreciate the council’s difficulty, we effectively reached a deal with the Government in creating the plan. This should be honoured and enforced.”

Shiplake’s county councillor David Bartholomew said: “I’m astonished that the district council has executed such a volte-face considering this Thames Farm application has barely changed from one it rejected. Now that they’ve encountered a shortage of housing land, they are bending over backwards to find a reason to approve this. Everyone who worked on the neighbourhood plan must be feeling pretty disappointed.”

Geoff Thomas, chairman of Shiplake Parish Council’s planning committee, said: “There are still other planning reasons to reject Thames Farm. It’s in an unsustainable location and will totally change the character of the area. The site is cut off from the rest of the village by the A4155, which everyone locally knows is dangerous to cross.

“Residents are very upset at how this is being handled. They feel the democratic process has been overturned.”

Henley MP John Howell, who introduced neighbourhood plans as part of the 2011 Localism Act, has written to the district council urging it to reconsider.

He says ministers have previously revoked permission for applications that were approved without giving due weight to a neighbourhood plan.

He said: “The district council is saying our neighbourhood plan is outdated because its own local plan is but I feel that is a false argument.

“In fact, the council does have the ability to say ‘ no’ to this development and there is case law to back that up.”

Mrs Engbers was unavailable for comment.

In July, the district council approved a proposal by McCarthy & Stone to convert the former Jet garage in Reading Road, Henley, into 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly. It will have no affordable element, which goes against the neighbourhood plan’s target of 40 per cent for all new developments.

Mr Howell has urged the Government to call it in for review and is awaiting a response.

• What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email

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