RESIDENTS of Henley opposed to new homes being built near them used the neighbourhood plan process to get their way, claims a former town mayor.
Ken Arlett says he will ask the Government to investigate whether the draft plan was skewed by self-interest groups.
He claims that residents of Blandy Road and Fair Mile both succeeded in having possible development sites near them being excluded from the draft, which is currently out for consultation.
The plan organisers deny that these residents’ views had any significant effect on the content of the plan.
The draft document recommends nine sites where up to 485 homes could be built by 2027 to meet government requirements. It was drawn up by a number of working groups consisting of 40 volunteers who narrowed down a list of 17 sites put forward by developers.
Mr Arlett, of Elizabeth Road, was a member of the housing, traffic and overview groups but has now resigned, saying some of the volunteers were members of pressure groups.
The volunteers include Barry Wood, also a former Henley mayor, who lives in Blandy Road, and Simon Parsons, of Fair Mile, who were both on the housing group.
Mr Wood is chairman of UNITED, a campaign group made up of Blandy Road residents.
The original list of 17 sites included Lucy’s Farm on Drawback Hill, which backs on to Blandy Road and has space for 130 homes, and a field to the south-west off Luker Avenue, by Fair Mile, which has room for 90 houses, but neither site was included in the final nine sites.
Mr Arlett claims that several sites which were chosen instead are not suitable for housing.
He said: “People like me were asked to join these groups just to see what we could offer but we came up against these pressure groups.
“These people just put anything forward to build up the number to 400 in a way that didn’t touch the sites that affected them personally.
“If you have an interest you should be able to put your case forward but you shouldn’t be the decision-maker as well.”
In December, when a public consultation on the original 17 sites was held, Dr Wood sent an email to 72 residents explaining how they could oppose development at Lucy’s Farm.
He said building on both that site and on a Gillotts School playing field would create “an intolerable burden for our community to withstand”.
Following this Mr Arlett asked for Mr Wood to be removed from the working groups.
The town council’s neighbourhood planning governance committee discussed the issue in secret. According to minutes of the meeting, chairman Dieter Hinke expressed his concern about “the monopolisation of certain individuals throughout the discussions”.
However, the committee agreed that “the presence of pressure groups in relation to any planning development of this scale was inevitable and was not unique to Henley”.
A few days before the draft plan was finalised on April 9, Dr Wood and Mr Parsons exchanged emails with suggested housing numbers across the proposed sites. These were circulated among 18 members of the working groups.
Dr Wood proposed 400 houses across nine sites with a 50-bed care home at Highlands Farm, off Greys Road.
Mr Parsons suggested some minor changes, including increasing the maximum allocation on the Gillotts field from 60 to 85.
Dr Wood replied: “Good. I do believe that if the whole community gets behind Gillotts School it will happen as we shall be irresistible.”
The men were rebuked by Matthew Kinghan, of Nexus, the consultants overseeing the plan process, who was also copied in on the emails.
He told them: “I have serious reservations about using an email thread to attempt to achieve consensus.
“It is unfair to assume that everyone will be able and willing to engage with this email thread and responses…. it is easy to incorporate factual inaccuracies or misunderstand policy issues here.”
In last year’s public consultation on the 17 sites, the least popular were Lucy’s Farm and the school field.
Of the 495 people who responded to a questionnaire, almost a quarter lived in either Blandy Road or in the Fair Mile and Luker Avenue area.
Mr Arlett, who plans to complain to Eric Pickles, Community and Local Government Secretary, said: “I think what is currently being proposed for Henley is a very poor plan in the long term.
“We would have got an excellent one if the groups had been made up of ordinary people with open minds.
“I hope enough people will object to the draft plan and that it will go back to Nexus. We need to sit down and come up with an unbiased view on each site.”
Cllr Hinke said: “We invited everyone who lives in Henley to attend the group meetings. You can’t just ban people from joining because it isn’t democratic.
“Quite honestly, it is such a small town and there were so many sites that everyone would have been affected by some of them to a degree.
“Everyone in this town has the right to an opinion and I don’t care where you live.”
He said that even when the responses from Blandy Road and Fair Mile were excluded from the questionnaire results it made no difference as people living elsewhere expressed similar preferences.
Cllr Hinke said: “We will find out what the people of Henley think now the draft plan has gone to consultation.
“Mr Arlett may feel it does not make sense or that the working groups’ conclusions are flawed but if people agree they will tell us.
“If the plan is flawed then people will reject it but I do not believe that will happen. I think most people will think it is a strong plan.
“This is a lot more important than individual personalities and opinions — it’s about everyone coming forward to give their views.
“Most people I have spoken to have really liked the brownfield-first approach and think it will work for the town.
“If this plan doesn’t succeed we will be at the mercy of South Oxfordshire District Council and the developers — then we’ll get exactly what we deserve and that would be a great shame.”
Mr Wood said: “Mr Arlett is a defeated individual — he espoused something that nobody would buy into. There are no grounds for complaint, especially from him.
“The process was not flawed. I believe Nexus and Dieter Hinke have done a superior job in bringing this to a resolution.
“We got there remarkably easily and there was a remarkable consensus that the housing allocation for the town is the best that could be done.”
Referring to the recipients of his emails, he said Nexus would not give him everyone’s email address and that most people “consistently involved” on the working groups had received them.
Mr Parsons said: “There were emails sent between many working group members during the process, some making general observations and some suggesting housing allocations for discussion.
“This was really the only way for ideas and thoughts to be circulated outside the formal group sessions.
“The email traffic was open to all working group members, although I do not believe anyone had a complete address list so other members were encouraged to pass on correspondence if they had additional addresses.
“I believe the majority of emails were also passed on to Nexus, members of the governance committee and South Oxfordshire District Council.
“The process was open and in the end a consensus on allocations was reached which Nexus supported and is now open for public consultation.”