Saturday, 23 June 2018

When what you want is perhaps not what you get

When what you want is perhaps not what you get

THE Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan is not a “trump card” to block every unwanted development in the area, according to John Howell.

The Henley MP, who introduced neighbourhood planning as part of the 2011 Localism Act, says the document is still achieving its aim of giving ordinary people a greater say in where new housing goes.

However, responding to concerns that the process is being derailed by the approval of schemes that conflict with the plan, he says there was never a guarantee that its policies would be followed to the letter.

The plan, which took three years and cost Henley Town Council more than £90,000 to compile, was passed in a referendum in March after being approved by an independent

It names 11 sites where about 500 new homes should go by 2027 to meet Government housing targets. They are as follows:

l A field west of Fair Mile (about 60 dwellings)

l The former Jet garage off Reading Road (55)

l The former Wilkins removals offices (20) and former Henley Youth Centre (23) in Deanfield Avenue

l Highlands Farm (170), the former Makower offices (13), Henley Enterprise Park (42) and the former Chilterns End care home (27), all off Greys Road

l The gym unit and sports clubhouse next to Tesco in Reading Road (30)

l A field at Gillotts School (50)

l The former Royal Marine Reserves base in Friday Street (10).

The plan says every site should offer “an appropriate range and mix of housing to achieve a balanced community and in particular help meet the needs of those age and income groups who have difficulty finding homes in Henley”.

It also says 40 per cent of the homes on each site should be “affordable”, with rents or purchase prices fixed below the market rate.

But since the referendum South Oxfordshire District Council has approved two planning applications, including one involving one of the 11 sites, that both go against the plan.

The first, by retirement specialist McCarthy & Stone, was for 53 “extra care” flats for elderly and disabled people at the former Jet garage site.

This involves no affordable element, although the developer has offered £800,000 towards community infrastructure elsewhere, as well as failing to provide for young people.

The district council’s planning committee said the plan should have explicitly stated the affordable housing requirements for each site but the town council, which opposed the application, said it was clear the plan’s policies applied to all 11 sites.

The second application was by Essex developer Henthames to convert the former LA Fitness gym site in Newtown Road into a three-storey, 80-bed care home for the elderly.

The site isn’t earmarked for housing in the neighbourhood plan and is on an industrial estate that the document says should remain employment land.

The district council said the scheme would create jobs while offsetting an expected shortfall in care places and rejected opponents’ claims that there aren’t enough alternative leisure facilities in the town.

In both instances, the Government was urged to “call in” the decisions for review by a planning inspector but housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell declined.

Another application for 95 homes at Thames Farm, off Reading Road, near Shiplake, was rejected by district councillors despite being recommended to approve it by their officers.

The 5.6-hectare field, which is in Harpsden parish, was considered for inclusion in the neighbourhood plan but rejected.

This did not stop the officers saying the development should be allowed because the district council had failed to secure enough immediately available housing land to meet demand over next five years.

They said this made the district’s local plan, and therefore all neighbourhood plans, obsolete under national planning laws and that the rules should be relaxed to only exclude schemes which would cause “substantial harm”.

The planning committee rejected the proposal for a number of reasons, including the fact that Thames Farm is not in the neighbourhood plan.

Mr Howell says this proves the plan remains effective and that the district council was within its rights to prioritise other aspects of its local plan when considering the other two applications.

He says: “I have rarely come across an application which satisfies all the policy objectives set out in the local plan. It is therefore for the planning committee to decide how much weight to give individual policies and that’s exactly what they did.

“In those cases, the minister thought there was very little contrast with the neighbourhood plan and therefore not suitable for call-in and that is the end of the story.

“The refusal of Thames Farm depended on there being a neighbourhood plan which didn’t want building on the site. That view was upheld as the district council must take it into consideration.

“Neighbourhood plans therefore have the same legal weight as the local plan but aren’t a trump card to settle every dispute with no further discussion. Planning committees must decide for themselves how much weight to give various material considerations.

“Neighbourhood plans do put power into the hands of communities because, before I introduced them, a parish or town council could only indicate support, opposition or no strong views on individual applications as they came in.

“Those views could largely be filed away and ignored but now they have legal weight. Every effort is made to ensure there is no major policy difference with local plans but you can’t legislate to make it totally foolproof.

“They are about sharing responsibility with the district council for the planning process and we have made that clear from the very beginning. The plan doesn’t set out the way things are going to be but the way people would like things to be.

“Henley doesn’t have the sole right to determine exactly what happens in Henley. However, communities can now set policies which, legally, must be taken into consideration.

“I’m not going to speculate on how much power people expected neighbourhood plans would have when we embarked on this. However, I can tell you they are being developed across the constituency with great enthusiasm and a lot of input from local people.”

Henley councillors take a different view.

Mayor Julian Brookes says: “I feel very frustrated that the district council chose to approve those schemes. The lack of affordable housing was a key issue for us.

“We were told the neighbourhood plan was silent on the LA Fitness site but it was a working gym when the plan was written and we had no idea it was going to shut.”

Former town councillor Dieter Hinke, who chairs the steering group responsible for implementing the plan, has warned that it could now fail to deliver homes for the town’s younger residents.

He says the current situation is a “real mess” and fears the growing number of care home applications could turn the town into the “Eastbourne of the Chilterns”.

Councillors fear that more applications that conflict with the neighbourhood plan will be approved. These include proposals by:

l B&M Care for a 60-bed care home on the former youth centre site. Planning officers are understood to have responded favourably to this.

l Ashill Land for 17 houses and flats at the Makower site, which offers only five affordable units (29 per cent) as the company says any more would make the scheme unviable. Planning officers have recommended this is approved next week.

l Millgate Homes for 10 flats near Parkside, off Gravel Hill. The site was not included in the neighbourhood plan due to the impact on protected trees.

This week the town council agreed to appoint a planning consultant to help oppose future developments that don’t comply with the plan.

Councillor Brookes, who proposed the idea, says: “In future, we must carefully consider other grounds for refusing a site beyond the fact that it is not in the neighbourhood plan.

“I’d like to say that’s good enough in itself but we would be wise to give the district council as many reasons as possible.

“This will give them more confidence that, should they refuse permission, their decision will be upheld if the applicant appeals.”

But Mr Howell says: “I can’t understand why people are concerned — they need to remain calm, follow the process and start discussions as soon as possible with the district council.”

He has discussed South Oxfordshire’s land supply shortage with Mr Barwell, who assured him it didn’t affect the standing of neighbourhood plans.

Mr Howell said this was suppported by a recent High Court case in which the minister’s decision to refuse plans for 111 houses at Broughton Astley in Leicestershire was upheld.

The scheme conflicted with the village’s neighbourhood plan, which was deemed valid despite a housing shortage across Harborough district.

However, earlier this month the Government decided to allow two schemes totalling almost 400 homes in Cheshire, saying a housing land shortfall took precedence in that instance.

Mr Howell says: “You can’t just generalise from specific examples because each application must be assessed on its own unique circumstances. The general stance of the Government is to support neighbourhood plans and it is doing so, as the Prime Minister herself has assured me.”

Councillor Brookes says: “It is reassuring to hear that there is ministerial support for the neighbourhood plan, although these decisions seem to be more of an art than a science.

“Planning law says that a five-year land supply shortage will render local plans out of date but it also states that planning permission won’t usually be granted if a scheme conflicts with a neighbourhood plan.

“There’s all this debate about ‘weighting’ and which factors take priority, which is very frustrating as it’s very simple to us — if it’s not in the neighbourhood plan, it shouldn’t be allowed. However, the district council doesn’t see it that way.”

On January 20, Mr Howell will host a conference on neighbourhood planning for all town and parish councils across the district.

He is also pushing for a reform of the planning system so that developers cannot challenge a planning authority’s claim to have a five-year land supply.

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