Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Showdown over care home plan

PLANS to turn a former Henley gym into a large care home are being recommended for approval despite widespread opposition

PLANS to turn a former Henley gym into a large care home are being recommended for approval despite widespread opposition.

South Oxfordshire District Council’s officers say the proposal for the old LA Fitness site in Newtown Road would make a positive contribution to the area by providing jobs and care places while improving the look of its surroundings.

But their recommendation to the council’s planning committee, which will make a decision on Wednesday, runs contrary to the hundreds of objections from residents and town councillors who have campaigned against the loss of the leisure facility.

Objectors claim that since the gym and swimming pool closed a year ago there has been added pressure on other local gyms and the pool at Henley leisure centre is over-subscribed as it is the only one left. Furthermore, the LA Fitness site is not one of the 11 which were earmarked for residential development in the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum in March.

Developer Henthames wants to demolish the gym complex and build a three-storey care home with 80 beds. There would be 33 parking places and new main entrance would be built off Mill Lane, a narrow road leading to riverside homes.

In a report to the committee, planning officer Amanda Rendell says people’s desire to retain a gym isn’t a valid reason for refusing planning permission as Henthames could use the building as another leisure facility, such as a cinema, music venue, bingo hall or skating rink, without having to seek consent.

Ms Rendell says: “Whilst it is accepted that the loss of the gym has been very disappointing for users, there has been a historic surplus of gym stations in the area. It is reasonable to assume that market forces will respond if sufficient demand exists.

“The loss of the swimming pool is regrettable and it is acknowledged that there isn’t an equivalent private facility in the immediate area. However, refusing this will not result in it being brought back into use. In addition, there there are significant viability issues associated with swimming facilities and on that basis officers do not consider that it would be reasonable to insist on alternative provision.

“The council has no powers to require the gym/pool to re-open and has to consider the proposed redevelopment on its merits.”

By contrast, she says there is a growing need for care home places because the population is increasing and people are living longer while anyone moving into a home will free up a house.

Ms Rendell says the Henthames proposal is different from the 53 “extra care” flats which are to be built by McCarthy & Stone at the former Jet garage site in Reading Road — less than five minutes’ walk away — as the home would provide for people with more complex care needs who are unable to live independently. When the district council approved the other development it caused outrage among town councillors who claimed the neighbourhood plan had been ignored.

Ms Rendell also says home would attract significantly fewer vehicle trips compared with the former gym — 135 journeys per day as opposed to 630 per day.

She also dismisses the fact that the site has been designated an asset of community value, meaning the community must be given a six-month headstart to put a bid for the land if it goes back on the market, as Henthames isn’t selling it.

Ms Rendell adds: “The proposal would help to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities by providing an 80-bed care home [and] would create a high-quality built environment in a sustainable location.”

Henley councillors say the home would generate excess traffic on Mill Lane, which is only one car’s width in places and is heavily used at weekends by walkers and visitors to Henley Town Football Club.

They have pledged to send a “crack team” of councillors and campaigners to Wednesday’s meeting to speak against the scheme.

This will include Councillor Simon Smith, chairman of the town council’s planning committee, town and district councillor Lorraine Hillier, former councillor Dieter Hinke, who is chairman of the Henley neighbourhood plan’s steering group, Keep Henley Active pressure group leader Michelle Thomas and Craig Marks, an investor who wants to buy the site and re-open it as a gym.

Cllr Hillier, who is a member of the district’s planning committee but will not be able to vote, said: “We will have to fight this one. The site wasn’t earmarked in the neighbourhood plan and we have always been against it because of the traffic issues in Mill Lane. It isn’t a suitable location for a care home and that hasn’t changed since the application was first submitted.”

Mr Hinke said: “That building was recently confirmed as an asset of community value, so Keep Henley Active should be given more time to identify a local operator who can put in an offer to run it as a gym.

“The pool is especially important as there aren’t enough facilities for children to learn to swim in Henley.

“The district council shouldn’t be rushing this through but they've been doing that ever since the housing land shortage emerged. It’s more about getting the numbers up than taking into account the views of communities, which is very disappointing.”

Ms Thomas, of Belle Vue Road, Henley, said: “The council should not be releasing such an important leisure site when there is already excellent provision for the elderly in this town.

“I checked at Henley leisure centre two weeks ago and there’s a waiting list for swimming lessons at one ability level. They’ve got so many children in one class that they’ve split them into groups and divided the pool so they can’t even swim the entire width.

“There’s a restricted timetable and the pool is only available to certain people during certain periods, so it’s packed for the general sessions and you can’t swim properly. My children and I don’t see the point in going any more.

“Also, while new gyms are opening, they aren’t equivalent to LA Fitness’s offering as they don’t have a creche, pool or café.

“I hope as many people as possible will attend the meeting and put on a show of defiance. We need to demonstrate the strength of feeling against this.”

The home would be operated by Hallmark, of Essex, and employ 70 staff providing round-the-clock care.

The gym was originally opened as The Workshop by former jewellery magnate Gerald Ratner in 1998.

Henthames would not comment.

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