Saturday, 21 July 2018

Minister won’t stop care flats

A BID to stop 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly being built on land in Henley earmarked for ordinary housing has failed

A BID to stop 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly being built on land in Henley earmarked for ordinary housing has failed.

John Howell had urged the Government to step in after McCarthy & Stone, a retirement property specialist, was granted planning permission for the scheme at the former Jet garage site in Reading Road.

The Henley MP said the decision by South Oxfordshire District Council went against the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which says more affordable housing for all age groups is needed locally.

However, planning minister Gavin Barwell has declined Mr Howell’s request for the application to be “called in” and decided by a planning inspector and possibly going to a public inquiry.

It is understood the Department for Communities and Local Government didn’t think the scheme strayed far enough from the neighbourhood plan to justify further action.

The site is earmarked for about 55 homes in the neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum in March and is supposed to be legally binding.

It names 11 locations where about 500 new homes should go by 2027 to meet Government targets and says 40 per cent on every site should be “affordable” with rents or purchase prices fixed below the market rate.

It also says new developments should comprise an “appropriate range and mix… to achieve a balanced community and in particular help meet the needs of those age and income groups who have difficulty finding homes in Henley”.

McCarthy & Stone is proposing only self-contained flats for elderly people who have care needs but still want to live independently.

Planning permission was granted on the casting vote of the district council’s planning committee chairman Felix Bloomfield who later argued that the neighbourhood plan’s policies weren’t specific enough and that the developer had offered £800,000 towards affordable housing and infrastructure elsewhere in Henley.

Henley Mayor Julian Brookes said he was disappointed by Mr Barwell’s decision not to challenge the district council.

He said: “This issue is important to us, even if it is considered less significant nationally. We need more affordable housing, which McCarthy & Stone is not offering.

“The developer has offered money but that does not help the 20 or so families who might have looked forward to some affordable accommodation there.

“We need to learn from this as we are expecting another care home application for the former Henley Youth Centre site in Deanfield Avenue.

“Affordable housing is very important and I’d like to think we can still hit that 40 per cent figure across the town as a whole, but at this point I can’t honestly say how we might achieve it.

“We considered seeking a judicial review but that’s likely to cost a five-figure sum and, even if we succeeded, it would just go back to the district council who could approve it again.”

Councillor Brookes said McCarthy & Stone’s application received no formal letters of objection but eight in support, so in future councillors would encourage residents to oppose applications that were contrary to the neighbourhood plan.

He said: “From the planning committee’s point of view, you can see how this influenced the decision. They probably thought there was no problem if people weren’t objecting.

“We need to motivate and energise our citizens so that if another care home scheme comes forward they will make their views known.”

The former youth centre is owned by B&M Care, which wants to build a 60-bed home.

Developer Henthames, of Loughton, Essex, bought the former LA Fitness gym in Newtown Road last year and has applied to convert it into an 80-bed care home.

Such schemes are popular with developers because they don’t have to make a statutory contribution towards infrastructure and services, which they would have to do with ordinary housing.

Henley district councillor Joan Bland, a planning committee member who was barred from voting due to her local links, said the town didn’t need any more care homes as Chilterns End, off Greys Road, would soon be relocating to a larger 64-bed facility at the Townlands Hospital site.

She said: “We aren’t going to have enough staff to fill all these homes. Chilterns End is always crying out for staff but has to look outside the area because this is such an expensive place to live.

“We will also be importing elderly residents because the need for these services isn’t that great in Henley.

“Sometimes as a planning committee member you wonder what you’re actually there for — it’s very sad and frustrating. The previous application for 55 flats ticked all the boxes but often these developers just get their permission and sell the land on. It’s sickening and the law needs to be changed.

“However, we still have a neighbourhood plan and I will do whatever I can to fight for it.”

Former town councillor Dieter Hinke, who chairs the steering group responsible for implementing the plan’s policies, said: “We shouldn’t have to fight inappropriate applications as they come in. The district council should be warning developers off at the pre-application stage if their proposals don’t comply with the plan.

“However, I believe the plan is still on course to deliver what was promised for Henley as a whole. The other sites will soon be coming forward and we must be vigilant to ensure we get what we want.”

Mr Howell said: “I’m obviously disappointed because a key question about the importance of the neighbourhood plan has been left hanging.

“The call-in procedure is used very rarely and I understand this application was not sufficiently different from the plan, especially as it will still count towards the overall homes target.

“I don’t believe there is any further action which can be taken in this instance.”

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