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Tuesday, 20 February 2018
CONTROVERSIAL plans to build scores of new homes on farmland near Henley have been approved after more than four years of legal wrangling.
Claire Engbers has been awarded planning permission to build 95 houses at Thames Farm, a
14-acre site off Reading Road near Shiplake, which she owns.
Her application, which followed a failed bid to get consent for 110 houses in 2013, was refused by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee in September.
But on Wednesday planning inspector John Braithwaite announced he was overturning the authority’s decision following a four-day public inquiry in June.
He stated the new houses were urgently needed to counteract a shortage across Oxfordshire and that objectors’ concerns about road safety could be overcome.
Mr Braithwaite also disputed claims that developing the land, which is in Harspden parish, would harm the surrounding countryside as it is not in the green belt or the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
His decision has been strongly criticised by councillors of all parties and levels of local government, who have opposed any homes at Thames Farm from the outset.
They say it undermines the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum last year and did not earmark the land for development.
Mrs Engbers first sought outline consent for 110 homes in June 2013. The district council refused that amid opposition from Harpsden and Shiplake parish councils.
At about the same time, she submitted Thames Farm for inclusion in the neighbourhood plan but was unsuccessful. The site went out to public consultation with 17 others but didn't make the final draft.
Mrs Engbers appealed against the refusal of planning permission in June 2014 and a public inquiry was held over Christmas.
Inspector Ian Jenkins found in the district council’s favour but Mrs Engbers then took her case to the High Court and the appeal verdict was overturned.
A judge agreed that Mr Jenkins hadn’t warned her that highways issues would sway his judgement so she didn’t have a fair chance to present her case. As the case was continuing, Mrs Engbers submitted another proposal to the district council for 95 homes, which she argued was “greener”.
The council’s planning officers recommended approval, saying the authority had failed to secure enough immediately available housing land to meet the next five years’ demand and this invalidated the neighbourhood plan.
But members of the planning committee rejected the scheme last year, saying the site wasn’t in the plan and reiterating the road safety concerns.
Mrs Engbers then decided to appeal this decision rather than the earlier application.
The approved scheme includes 38 “affordable” units, with rents or purchase prices fixed below the market rate, which meets the district council’s 40 per cent target for new developments.
Mrs Engbers also proposes to include more than 15,000 sq m of public open space, 330 sq m of allotments, three play areas and two flood drainage ponds.
The inspector said the district council couldn’t even demonstrate a three-year housing land supply, which the Government recently deemed sufficient for a neighbourhood plan to remain enforceable.
The council disputes this but Mr Braithwaite said its estimate for the number of houses it could build in the next few years was “too optimistic”.
He said the council needed to accommodate “significant unmet need” from Oxford city, which claims to have a housing shortage, while the lack of affordable housing was “a matter of serious concern… or even dire.”
He said only 29 affordable units were built in South Oxfordshire during the last six years when there should have been 50 annually. A further 94 have been approved but he said this wasn’t enough.
Mr Braithwaite said Thames Farm was within developed rather than open countryside as there are houses along the opposite frontage of Reading Road and along Woodlands Road to the rear.
He said: “The site is well contained by tree belts and is within a developed part of the countryside. The proposal… would concentrate existing development in the countryside and have an overall moderate adverse effect on the character of the area.”
He said there was good visibility along Reading Road so proposals for a pedestrian refuge in the middle of the street and new pavements with a crossing to Shiplake village centre were sufficient to allay road safety fears.
He accepted that Reading Road was often busy but pointed out that Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, had raised no objections.
Mr Braithwaite concluded: “The development would contribute to the supply of market and affordable housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations and there is no reason to suppose… it would not be a high-quality built environment.
“The adverse consequences of granting planning permission… is limited to the less than significant harm that would be caused to the character and appearance of the countryside.
“It would partially redress the significant and persistent shortage of housing land in the district and the serious shortage of affordable housing.”
Shiplake and Harpsden district councillor Paul Harrison said: “This is a disgraceful decision which puts two fingers up to the entire planning process.
“All our towns and villages will be wondering why they should bother writing a neighbourhood plan now.
“The inspector speaks of Oxford’s unmet need but the city council hasn’t yet proven that. It is also plainly dangerous and an accident waiting to happen but I doubt he’ll be there to apologise to the victims if anything happens.
“The district council has spent half a million pounds on neighbourhood plans so we need to be asking the Government how a situation like this can be allowed to happen.
“We’re frankly livid and the district council has a tough few months ahead. People are going to be complaining en masse and who can blame them?”
David Bartholomew, the villages’ county councillor, said: “Residents will be bitterly disappointed by this decision. It’s ludicrous — how can one inspector agree with local concerns and another totally ignore them?
“This flies in the face of the neighbourhood plan, which the people of Henley and Harpsden voted for. People will wonder if their efforts were worth it as it feels like a blow against local democracy.
“It shouldn’t be possible for someone to get their way just by throwing enough money and lawyers at the situation. Hundreds of residents objected while the letters of support appeared to be written from templates, in some cases not even from people living in the area.
“His conclusions about road safety are also ludicrous. As a keen and experienced cyclist, I can tell you there’s no way I’d ride along the Reading Road outside the very quietest times.
“This is all part of a Government agenda to build houses at all costs. It also means people who travel regularly into Henley will suffer from increasingly long traffic jams.”
Henley town, district and county councillor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “I’m deeply disappointed by this verdict and shocked at the statement that South Oxfordshire doesn’t even have a three-year land supply, which brings all the district’s neighbourhood plans into question.
“This means it’s open season for developers — and I think the district council will have a tough time explaining why it shouldn’t return the £100,000 which Henley Town Council spent in good faith on the neighbourhood plan. It hasn’t protected Henley at all.”
Henley MP John Howell, who introduced neighbourhood planning as part of the 2011 Localism Act, said: “I have no idea yet what the district council intends to do about this.
“One way or another, I’m sure this will end up in the High Court. The district council has always assured me that it has a three-year land supply.
“That being the case, they should have no hesitation in pursuing this further and can count on my support.
“In the meantime, I still believe in the importance of neighbourhood plans and urge communities to continue working on them. It would be rash to come to a halt while the details of this are still being worked out.”
Tudor Taylor, chairman of Shiplake Parish Council, said: “I’m horrified and appalled by this decision but we need to stay calm and have a level-headed discussion about what this means and what our next steps should be.
“I am genuinely sad at the prospect of losing this green space and concerned by the claims that are being made about the district’s housing land supply.”
District council leader John Cotton said: “The decision is very disappointing and the inspector’s comments on the lack of a three-year land supply are surprising.
“We need to look at the figures he has used and at this stage we can’t rule out a legal challenge if necessary.”
Kester George, chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, said he was too shaken by the news to comment.
Mrs Engbers said: “I am overjoyed with the decision. It has been a really long, hard battle and I would like to thank everyone who supported me.”
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