Friday, 20 July 2018

Garden centre housing plans

A DISUSED garden centre near Henley could be redeveloped for housing after lying derelict for seven years

A DISUSED garden centre near Henley could be redeveloped for housing after lying derelict for seven years.

Alex Hersham and his mother Aida Dellal, who own the former Wyevale site, off Reading Road, near Shiplake, are proposing to build up to 34 new homes on the 4.5-acre plot along with either offices or a care home.

Ms Dellal, a wealthy Iranian divorcee and philanthropist who also owns the Fawley Court estate, off Marlow Road, bought the land when the garden centre closed in 2009 but has failed to find a new use for it.

She had hoped that it would serve as a new home for Toad Hall garden centre, which was intending to relocate from its premises next to Fawley Court, but this was not viable because the Wyevale site was too dilapidated.

Since then, Ms Dellal and her son have been marketing the land through Henley estate agent Ballards and have received more than 30 enquiries, all from developers wanting to build houses or a care home.

In the meantime, the land has become heavily overgrown and several large logs have been placed across the entrance to keep intruders out.

The site is earmarked for industrial or commercial use in the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum in March, but the owners say this would not be viable.

The plan, which names 11 other sites where about 500 homes should go by 2027 to meet national targets, was meant to be legally binding but was recently deemed obsolete by South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, because there is not enough available housing land across the district to meet the next five years’ demand.

Now Mr Hersham and Ms Dellal are urging town and parish councillors to support building houses on part of their site.

They say this would help meet the shortfall while creating jobs and would be matched with financial contributions towards community infrastructure.

They have not yet prepared a planning application and intend to consult residents first.

In a presentation to Henley Town Council’s neighbourhood plan steering group on Tuesday, Mr Hersham said he had sought professional advice from estate agent Savills and was warned that industrial and commercial use alone was doomed to fail.

He said that even if all units were let immediately at a rent equivalent to £20 per square foot, a developer would make a £5.5million loss on the sale of the site because the income wouldn’t offset the redevelopment cost.

Furthermore, such a high rent would probably deter tenants anyway because similar units on the Newtown Road industrial estate in Henley go for almost half that price.

However, he said a development with 34 homes and 6,000 sq ft of offices would make a £2.9 million profit while the community would benefit from a statutory contribution of £400,000 towards roads, schools and other amenities such as doctors’ surgeries and sports facilities.

An alternative would be to have 25 homes and 35,000 sq ft of care accommodation plus a smaller quantity of offices and educational facilities.

In both instances, 40 per cent of the new houses would be “affordable” with rents or purchase prices fixed below the going rate.

Access could be via the existing entrance off Reading Road and the houses could be arranged in terraces separated by communal green spaces.

The steering group, which was formed to ensure the neighbourhood plan’s policies are implemented, supported the idea in principle but agreed to ask the district council to verify Mr Hersham’s figures.

Dieter Hinke, a former town councillor who chairs the group, said: “If the figures are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt them, we clearly have to look at alternative uses for that site.

“It is in a horrible condition, it has been vacant for ages and it’s previously developed land. We’re happy in principle to discuss a development that includes housing.”

Mr Hinke said it was too soon to say whether offices or a care home were preferable as it would depend on the outcome of several other planning applications.

Henthames, of Essex, is awaiting a decision on its proposal for an 80-bed care home at the former LA Fitness gym site in Newtown Road.

B&M Care wants to build a 64-bed unit at the former Henley youth centre site in Deanfield Avenue, which was earmarked for 23 houses in the neighbourhood plan.

McCarthy & Stone has been granted planning permission for 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly at the former Jet garage site in Reading Road, which was originally earmarked for 55 ordinary homes.

Mr Hinke said: “We’re aware that we’re losing housing sites left, right and centre so another care home might not be considered wise.

“However, it could be a specialist dementia unit with training facilities so there might be a need for it.”

Mayor Julian Brookes said: “We want to adhere to the neighbourhood plan as much as possible but this is a brownfield site in sore need of some kind of redevelopment.

“It is currently set aside as employment land but the owners have put a lot of thought into the matter and it seems they would incur significant losses if they stuck strictly to the plan.

“I’m positively inclined towards this in principle. The devil will be in the detail but we have to ask ourselves what the smartest option is for that site.”

Kester George, chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, said: “I think this proposal makes the best of a bad job.

“I don’t believe the garden centre should have been allowed in the first place but, in light of that history of prior development, I’m not against it in this instance.”

Ms Dellal and Mr Hersham put the site forward for inclusion in the neighbourhood plan when the process started in 2012.

It ranked eighth most popular in the first round of public consultation, with 78 per cent of respondents supporting development, but was dropped as a housing site when new sites in more central locations came forward.

Mr Hersham said: “Even at the very top end of what’s achievable for a commercial rent, and that really is an unrealistic best-case scenario, it’s going to lose a lot of money as pure employment land. The advice we received was that you’d be crazy to go ahead with it.

“It’s very important for us to stick to the neighbourhood plan to some degree as we want to work with the community and maintain a positive relationship. Even with the housing, this proposal will still generate significant employment.

“It strikes us that Henley has recently lost a lot of houses to care home proposals so this would be an ideal opportunity to provide housing for younger people. Henley is very difficult for the average person to buy property because it is so expensive.

“We’re hoping to open this consultation up to the wider community soon and are pleased that there’s been support for something to happen as that land is now quite unsightly.”

The site is immediately north of Thames Farm, a 14-acre site which owner Claire Engbers wants to redevelop for housing.

She recently sought outline permission for 95 homes but this was refused by the district council’s planning committee despite its officers recommending approval.

In 2013 she applied for 110 homes and lost on appeal but the planning inspector’s decision was overturned after she successfully challenged it at the High Court.

A fresh appeal is to be heard next month.

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