Monday, 16 July 2018

Neighbourhood plans might fail to prevent development

THE man behind the first neighbourhood plan in the Henley area to be adopted says the

THE man behind the first neighbourhood plan in the Henley area to be adopted says the entire process is now under threat.

Geoff Botting, vice-chairman of Woodcote Parish Council, was speaking after South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, announced it had failed to identify enough land in the district to meet demand for housing over the next five years.

This means new sites must be considered to make up the shortfall and the district council must be more lenient towards developers when deciding applications.

It may no longer reject a proposal purely because the location is not included in a neighbourhood plan. Instead, it must prove the harm “significantly and demonstrably” outweighs the benefits of granting consent.

This flies in the face of neighbourhood planning legislation, which was introduced in 2011 to give communities a say in where development takes place.

Woodcote was among the first places in South Oxfordshire to have a neighbourhood plan approved while Henley and Harpsden followed suit shortly afterwards. Several other villages are now at different stages of producing their plans.

All have lost their legal weight as they are part of the district council’s local plan, which is now considered obsolete.

Last month the authority’s officers recommended approving an application for 95 homes at Thames Farm, a 14-acre field between Henley and Shiplake, despite it being excluded from Henley and Harpsden’s joint plan.

The planning committee disagreed and rejected it unanimously on Wednesday last week, saying it posed a road safety hazard and would harm its rural surroundings so could still legally be thrown out.

However, during discussions on the scheme, officers stressed that development on other sites not in the plan could still be approved where harm couldn’t be proven.

Thames Farm’s owner Claire Engbers says she will appeal the decision. Councillor Botting was leader of Woodcote’s neighbourhood plan advisory group, which drew up a plan naming seven sites where 76 new homes should be built by 2027 to meet government targets.

The document passed a referendum in May 2014 with 90 per cent support from residents.

Cllr Botting called the district council’s admission that it had failed to identify enough land a “disaster”.

He said: “I expected the committee to reject Thames Farm but that isn’t the end of the story — the appeal will be the real acid test.

“If it ultimately gets through, people’s fears about neighbourhood plans will prove to have been well founded and I’m still very concerned about where they stand.

“Our plan took more than two years and a great deal of effort but suddenly we’ve got to tell people that the predictability we’d expected has gone.

“It strikes me that once neighbourhood plans are published, they should be valid for at least five years otherwise nobody is going to bother.

“What’s the point if a local authority’s troubles can drive a coach and horses through it? It torpedoes the credibility of the idea.

“Without neighbourhood plans we’ll go back to the old days when residents fought every scheme that came forward.

“The volunteers who write those plans put their reputation at stake by urging fellow residents to support them. If that trust is lost it won’t come back.”

Woodcote will have to update its plan by carrying out more research into the village’s housing need and identifying extra sites if it has increased.

Cllr Botting said: “We are still committed to it and will go through the same rigorous analytical process in updating it. It has delivered results and we believe it remains robust. However, one wonders how many more knocks neighbourhood planning can take.”

Benson is working on a “fast-track” neighbourhood plan but has experienced repeated delays in completing it.

The village’s housing allocation is 125 but the district council has already approved plans by developer WestWaddy for 400 homes on farmland north of Littlewood Road despite protests by residents.

Jon Fowler, vice-chairman of the parish council, said: “We met the district council’s leader John Cotton and planning policy manager Simon Rowberry, who made clear that even if we produced a neighbourhood plan other sites may be supported because of this land supply issue.

“We’re still committed to producing one but are very disappointed at the situation we find ourselves in. Had we known this would happen, I question whether we would have started a plan in the first place.

“We were promised it would allow local people to determine where housing should go but clearly that’s no longer the case.”

Watlington expects to produce a draft neighbourhood plan in the next month or so, which will go out to public consultation.

The town must take 79 new homes by 2027 but is working towards a figure of about 200.

Parish council chairman Ian Hill said: “The proposed housing increase across the district is over the top and unachievable.

“It seems grossly unfair to be ignoring neighbourhood plans when there’s no chance of those kinds of numbers being developed. The ability to override such plans should be suspended until more realistic figures are on the table.

“The other matter affecting us is the district council’s proposal for 3,500 homes at Chalgrove Airfield, which would render our plan worthless as it would change the entire profile of the area.

“However, we will carry on because our plan covers more than just housing sites and numbers. It will give us a chance to tackle the substantial problems we are experiencing with traffic and heavy goods vehicles passing through.”

In Goring, which must take 105 new homes, developers have submitted 15 sites for inclusion in its neighbourhood plan and public consultation on the site selection criteria has taken place.

The parish council says the village can’t take any more development because it is surrounded by the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and vital services such as the village school and the doctors’ surgery are already at capacity.

Mike Stares, who co-chairs the plan steering group, said: “Henley has invested considerable resources into producing a great plan but what’s the point if it’s ignored?

“Nonetheless, we will not be deterred as we’re taking a long-term view. We are well under way with what we believe is the right vision for Goring.

“If it is overridden, so be it. It would be immensely disappointing but we will have done our best to be heard.”

In a letter to last week’s Henley Standard, Councillor Cotton said it was wrong to suggest that neighbourhood plans no longer had value.

He said: “[Residents’] work has produced very high quality local policies and those people will be able to look back in years to come and say ‘I helped make our town better.’

“Despite the pressure South Oxfordshire is under from government planning inspectors bent on overruling each other and demonstrating their impatience for a huge increase in housing numbers, those plans still carry weight.

“It’s impossible to have every planning decision tick every planning policy box — that’s true for the district council’s local plan as much as for neighbourhood plans. However, over time, the broader thrust of plans will be achieved.

“South Oxfordshire District Council remains fully supportive of neighbourhood plans and acknowledges the vital role they have in allowing local communities to help us plan growth over the next 15 years and beyond.”

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