Wednesday, 02 December 2020

Housing plan isn't working

HENLEY and Harpsden’s joint neighbourhood plan could fail to deliver homes for the town’s youngest residents, the man in charge of implementing it has warned.

HENLEY and Harpsden’s joint neighbourhood plan could fail to deliver homes for the town’s youngest residents, the man in charge of implementing it has warned.

   The document, which passed a referendum in March and cost the taxpayer more than £90,000, names 11 sites where about 500 homes should go by 2027 to meet Government targets.

It says 40 per cent, about 200 dwellings in total, should be classed as “affordable” with rent or purchase prices fixed below the market rate.

But Dieter Hinke, the chairman of the plan’s steering group, says developers have earmarked too many of the approved plots for elderly care housing.

This is more profitable because under planning laws, those who build care homes don’t have to include an affordable element or make payments towards community infrastructure like schools, roads, and leisure, health and social care facilities.

Since work on the neighbourhood plan started in 2013, developers have exploited loopholes allowing them to class care homes as ordinary housing. South Oxfordshire District Council can refuse the schemes but risks being over-ruled on appeal.

McCarthy and Stone, a retirement living specialist, bought the former Jet petrol station in Reading Road earlier this year and is now seeking planning permission for 53 “assisted living” units.

The site is allocated for 55 dwellings in the neighbourhood plan and Inland Homes, the previous owner, had secured consent for 55 regular flats.

B&M Care intends to build a 60-bed care home on the site of the former Henley Youth Centre in Deanfield Avenue, which was allocated 23 homes in the plan.

Finally, Essex company Henthames wants permission to convert the former LA Fitness gym off Newtown Road, which it bought last summer, into an 80-bed care home.

Mr Hinke, a former chairman of the town council’s neighbourhood planning governance committee, said these sites were ideal for high-density developments of one- or two-bedroom flats whereas others, like Highlands Farm off Greys Road or the field south-west of Fair Mile, were better suited to houses.

If the plan doesn’t meet its aims, he fears young people who grew up in Henley will continue moving to other areas because they are being priced out of the market. He says many people who work in Henley also cannot afford to live there.

Mr Hinke said: “At the moment we risk ticking all the boxes and hitting our quota in principle but not achieving what we actually wanted for our residents.

“Accommodation for young people was a big concern during consultation on the neighbourhood plan and we cannot let people down.

“The LA Fitness site isn’t even in the plan but if we’re going to develop brownfield land we should use it to meet those needs. 

”We’re going to be overflowing with care homes and where’s the sense in that? They won’t be for the people of Henley – McCarthy and Stone have admitted half their residents will come from elsewhere, increasing the imbalance in our population.

“We could not have foreseen this but it’s a real mess. Developers have access to the best legal advice and are doing what they believe will make the biggest profit.

“All we can do is cause as much fuss as possible and tell them ‘we’re sorry, but we don’t want that here’. We need to sit down with them and explain our needs.

“It’s very frustrating to put so much time and money into this and be thwarted at the last minute.

“We all know that key workers in the town - those involved in teaching, caring, or our youth - have enormous difficulties in finding the right accommodation here.

“We are a small compact town and don’t have the availability of sites to meet all our needs. Let's put the young and those who work in the town at the top of the list.”

Henley Town Council owns one of the plan’s housing sites, the No Limits gym and AFC Henley and Henley Hockey Club premises opposite Tesco in Reading Road.

Mr Hinke said his former colleagues should only sell it under a covenant restricting future usage to housing.

He said: “The council must tie that up properly. If it doesn’t, the next owner can just turn around and build whatever they like. Putting retail on that site would go against our desire to keep it in the town centre. It must be used for housing.”

Simon Smith, the chairman of the town council planning committee, said: “It is a concern. In an ideal world, that site would be protected by a covenant. 

"However, because of planning laws, you couldn't write it in a way that prevented a care home while permitting regular housing."

Henley Mayor Julian Brookes, who is a trustee of Henley YMCA, which has 20 studio flats and 11 one-bedroom flats for young people at its complex in Lawson Road, shared Mr Hinke’s concerns.

He said: “It may well be that we can’t protect our site with a covenant but we should investigate thoroughly to ensure that is the case.  Having too many care homes will undoubtedly make it harder to achieve our affordable housing target.

“You only have to look at property prices in estate agents’ windows to see how expensive this area is. I’m very keen to promote affordable rents as well as shared ownership schemes, which allow people to start with as little as a 25 per cent stake and work up.

“Many young people are moving to Reading or Maidenhead and once they’ve settled they have no incentive to return because it’s cheaper there. They also have less incentive to find a job in Henley because they’d rather work near where they live.

“The YMCA is a valuable asset but can only ever be part of the solution. Our flats are for single occupants - once young people marry and have children, they need somewhere else to go.”

Councillor David Nimmo Smith, of the district council’s planning committee, said: “A care home ticks all the boxes in terms of housing numbers but doesn’t deliver the type of homes that were requested in the neighbourhood plan.”

He added: “It is disappointing to think that the plan might not have the full weight that residents who voted for it expected.”

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