Friday, 24 November 2017

Council agrees budgetfor expert to defend neighbourhood plan

A PLANNING consultant could be employed by Henley Town Council to help ensure its neighbourhood plan is taken notice of.

Councillors have agreed to budget up to £5,000 for the position which will involve devising strategies to oppose developments that go against the plan.

The move comes after South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, approved applications for an 80-bed care home at the former LA Fitness site in Newtown Road and for 53 extra care flats at the former Jet garage site in Reading Road, both contrary to the plan.

Deputy Mayor Will Hamilton said: “We will not necessarily spend the money. It is so that we are armed with the right information for the applications that come up.”

He said the neighbourhood plan steering group would say when a consultant was needed and the council would make a final decision.

Mayor Julian Brookes said that if the council had had better advice and guidance it could have stopped the two care housing applications.

“I believe the neighbourhood plan is robust — the inspector himself said it was and didn’t need to be specific on site policy,” he said.

“I believe having a planning consultant for those applications that directly conflict with the neighbourhood plan will be beneficial.”

During public question time at last week’s council meeting, Valerie Alasia, of Makins Road, Henley, asked: “What is the town council going to do to secure the status of the neighbourhood plan now that South Oxfordshire District Council has trashed it?”

Councillor Brookes replied: “I will disagree that the neighbourhood plan has been trashed. We will make sure we do everything in our power to ensure that the plan is adhered to as closely as possible.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the plan’s steering group says the level of protection from unwanted development that the document offers is not clear. Former town councillor Dieter Hinke said  its policies are being applied inconsistently because of a shortage of housing land across South Oxfordshire.

Under planning law, when there is a housing land shortage, councils and appeal inspectors can use their discretion in deciding how much weight to give a neighbourhood plan.

Mr Hinke said this meant that applications weren’t  guaranteed to be refused just because they contradict a neighbourhood plan.

In future his steering group would have to identify other reasons for rejecting non-compliant applications  to increase the chances of refusal.

Mr Hinke said the problem was caused by the district council not securing enough immediately available housing land to meet demand for the next five years.

When this happens, the law says that “relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date”.

The district council’s planning officers believe this means neighbourhood plans no longer carry any weight, which is why they recommended approving an application for 95 homes at Thames Farm, near Shiplake, although councillors still refused permission.

However, in March the Appeal Court ruled that “a finding that a policy is out of date does not mean that policy will be irrelevant or that it should be given no weight… [this] will remain a matter of planning judgement.”

Mr Hinke said: “To sum up, each application is unique and there are no guarantees as to how a planning application will be decided. It is up to us to put forward the best planning arguments to influence the planning judgements in our favour on sites in and outside our plan.

“The steering group will make sure it has all the information possible to help influence the decision-makers. Having a neighbourhood plan is better than not but, in our district, that alone isn’t enough to guarantee delivery of what residents want.”

Henley MP John Howell, who introduced neighbourhood plans as part of the 2011 Localism Act, has said that he was assured by planning minister Gavin Barwell that housing land shortages don’t affect a plan’s standing.

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