Saturday, 24 July 2021

UP to £75,000 could be spent by Benson Parish Council on fighting plans for an unwanted development in the village.

The council has agreed to hire a lawyer to represent it at a public inquiry early next year into plans for 120 new homes on land south of Watlington Road.

Architect WestWaddy was refused planning permission by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee due to the impact on the landscape, rural setting, agricultural land and Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The parish council says the scheme would provide no benefits to the village and has not included the site in its neighbourhood plan, which is nearing completion.

A council meeting heard that it could cost up to £55,000 to have a lawyer at the inquiry and even more if a technical expert was also required.

At the same time, Benson is facing a race against time to have its neighbourhood plan adopted before the inquiry in February or March, which could mean the planning inspector allows it only limited weight.

The delay has been caused by the district council, which has not yet
completed a habitats regulations assessment, which it has to do as it will form part of its new local plan. Watlington’s neighbourhood plan has been similarly affected.

The assessment is of the likely impact of development on areas of special protection and conservation.

The parish council asked London law firm Eversheds Sutherland to represent it at the hearing.

Stuart Andrews, a partner in the firm and a real estate estate planning specialist, said that if the council’s plan was in “good shape” by the time of inquiry, it would have a good case and he would be happy to represent it.

Councillor Philip Murray told the meeting: “He’s saying the most important thing for us, more important than lining him up immediately, is to crash on with the neighbourhood plan and do everything we can to get it as far advanced as possible and look at other statutory tools available to us.

“If everything swam for us and they [the district council] were as good as their word we’re going to be right on the cusp. If we get to the inquiry in a position where our neighbourhood plan did not have much weight his view is there’s a significant chance that it would be difficult or impossible to persuade the inspector that the case of landscape would count.

“[The plan] creates a viable and sustainable way of offering housing that actually gets us out from under the pressure of developers.

“It’s a huge amount of money for a lawyer but if it’s the only way we can give the plan a chance of really working then I think it’s really worth it.”

Councillor Patricia Baylis added: “I think if we need the £75,000 then that’s what we need to go for.

“It galls me rigid that we use taxpayers’ money to fight against developers who have unlimited funds and ride roughshod over everybody.”

Council vice-chairman Jon Fowler said: “If some of the other things we’re looking at come to fruition we might not need to spend that amount.”

The council agreed to hire a lawyer and relevant technical expert to represent it at the inquiry at a cost not to exceed £75,000 plus VAT.

Despite the delay in the process, the council submitted its final draft of its neighbourhood plan to the district council on October 20.

Councillor Fowler said: “We decided to submit it as soon as possible, although the district council are not going to go through and start the consultation process at the moment.

“I became aware Watlington had submitted their plan and I didn’t want to find ourselves in a situation of being stuck in a queue.”

He has written to district council leader John Cotton and Henley MP John Howell about the delay  and its potential impact.

Cllr Fowler said: “I’ve not had a response yet but I think things are happening behind the scenes because the district council have agreed to start preliminary work on our plan in the interim while they wait for the habitats regulations assessment to be completed.

“With the appeal for the land south of Watlington Road coming along we need to make sure the plan gets as far along the process as possible before the appeal but this delay doesn’t help.”

The referendums on both Benson and Watlington’s plans had already been put back to next year.

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