Saturday, 26 May 2018

Campaigner's plea for legal action over care home approval fails

A CAMPAIGNER claims that Henley Town Council hasn’t done enough to prevent the town’s former LA Fitness gym from being turned into a care home.

Michelle Thomas, leader of the Keep Henley Active pressure group, says the council should have asked for a judicial review by the High Court of South Oxfordshire District Council’s decision to grant planning permission to developer Henthames.

Henley Mayor Julian Brookes says that pursuing legal action with no guarantee of success would not be worth the cost.

Ms Thomas, of Belle Vue Road, asked for councillors to consider the issue at last week’s meeting of the council’s planning committee but this was too late for it to be added to the agenda.

Instead, an informal meeting of senior councillors concluded the issue was not worth pursuing.

Henthames, of Essex, bought the gym and swimming pool on the Newtown Road industrial estate shortly before it closed in August 2015. The company intends to demolish the old building and erect a three-storey care home with 80 beds.

Keep Henley Active believes the site should remain a leisure facility as there is now only one swimming pool in the town at Henley leisure centre. 

It says the district council’s decision was flawed because the site wasn’t earmarked for housing in the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which said it should remain as employment land.

Ms Thomas said: “That is a prime economic site and part of the most important business centre in Henley. If we allow this to get through, other plots on that estate will follow.”

She also claimed that the care home development would cause congestion in Mill Lane, where the main entrance will be.

Ms Thomas said the town council gave her a list of reasons why it wouldn’t pursue a judicial review but added: “They can’t make decisions in private like that.

“The town council is all over the place procedurally while we’re losing time to take effective action. Our window of opportunity is getting narrower and narrower. It just goes to show that democracy only goes so far here.

“The council’s responsibility to its residents doesn’t end with the district council’s decision. It’s incumbent upon it to explore all avenues and it could at least have taken legal advice.”

The councillors told her a judicial review could cost £40,000 or more and the application was still likely to be approved as the site is brownfield land.

Councillor Brookes said: “The town council has taken no formal decision. It was discussed at a routine meeting of our committee chairmen and women which takes place at the end of every cycle but has no legal authority.

“Personally, I don’t believe it would be a good use of our time and resources. There are some much more winnable battles coming up whereas this would be a long, hard and possibly futile slog.

“It seems a judicial review would take a lot of time that might be better spent.

“The Henley Youth Centre site, which was allocated for housing in the neighbourhood plan, has been purchased by a care home owner and we don’t yet know what will become of the former Chilterns End care home.”

Last year Keep Henley Active asked planning minister Gavin Barwell to “call in” the decision on the gym site and have it examined by a planning inspector.

Mr Barwell said this procedure could only be used “very selectively” and any such decision should have been taken locally.

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