Tuesday, 01 December 2020

MP steps into row over care flats development

A DEVELOPER planning to build 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly on land in Henley

A DEVELOPER planning to build 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly on land in Henley earmarked for ordinary housing could have its planning permission revoked.

Henley MP John Howell has urged the Government to intervene after McCarthy & Stone, a retirement property specialist, was granted consent for the scheme at the former Jet garage site in Reading Road.

He says the decision by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee last week was against residents’ wishes for more affordable housing in the town.

If planning minister Gavin Barwell agrees, the application could instead be decided by a planning inspector and might go to a public inquiry.

Mr Howell’s move comes after angry protests by Henley councillors at the committee’s decision, which was made on the casting vote of the chairman.

The land is earmarked for about 55 homes under Henley and Harpsden’s joint neighbourhood plan, which was approved in a referendum in March. Inland Homes, the previous owner, had permission to build 55 ordinary flats before selling the plot.

The plan says that 40 per cent of 500 dwellings due to be built in Henley should be “affordable” and that new developments should comprise an “appropriate range and mix… 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.”

But McCarthy & Stone is proposing only self-contained flats for elderly people who have care needs but still wish to live independently.

The plans are separate from plans for two other care homes — one with 60 beds in Deanfield Avenue and another with 80 beds in Newtown Road.

The committee was urged to turn down the application by Henley Mayor Julian Brookes, town and district councillors Stefan Gawrysiak and Lorraine Hillier and district councillor Joan Bland.

Councillor Brookes said: “More than 80 per cent of Henley residents voted for the neighbourhood plan and the town council’s unanimous view is that this should be adhered to.

“I ask you to refuse this as it doesn’t comply and will negatively impact our economic growth.”

The Mayor, who is a trustee of the Henley YMCA, added: “The biggest challenge our residents have is to find somewhere affordable in the Henley area to move on to. Some have to return to the environment from which they originally escaped.”

Cllr Bland, a member of the committee who was forbidden from voting because of her links to the town, said: “We’re most upset about this. The last thing we want Henley to become is a ghetto for old people and a gateway to heaven.

“There are enough care homes in the Henley area and we have full employment so the scheme would be importing its residents and staff. Our young people need somewhere to live and our neighbourhood plan should be respected.”

The council’s planning officers recommended approval, saying the neighbourhood plan made no specific recommendations about how the land should be used.

Felix Bloomfield, who chairs the committee, used his casting vote to approve the application after members were split equally.

Henley town and district councillor David Nimmo Smith sits on the committee but was not allowed to vote because he was chairman of Henley Town Council’s planning committee when it recommended refusal.

But after the meeting he said: “The decision is a body blow for Henley. So much for our neighbourhood plan — coach and horses driven through it.

“What worth for the referendum and all the work put in by many in preparing a community/people’s plan?

“The plan outlines a clear set of policies which are overarching and therefore apply to every site.

“The independent examiner who scrutinised our plan was quite happy with this and said we didn’t need to be more specific and the district council signed it off before sending it off to him.”

In a letter to this week’s Henley Standard, Councillor Gawrysiak said: “This decision stinks.

“We have been told that this is the ‘people’s plan’ and John Howell has stated that neighbourhood plans give local communities a say in the style and location of homes. To keep our vibrant community balanced and brilliant we must have affordable homes on all sites.”

Dieter Hinke, who chairs the plan’s steering group, said: “After all the promises by the Government and the district that we could shape our own future it has come to nothing.

“We were told that the new legislation would give us powers of control and how we could shape Henley and Harpsden for future generations.

“The youth of this town, both residents and workers, have been badly let down by a district council that is scared of its own shadow and will not take on the developers.

“Its main concerns are financial targets, leading to fear of appeals and not the will of the people.

“The town council should look into all legal aspects regarding the validity of this decision and immediately send a bill to the district council for all the money spent on the plan over the years.”

Councillor Bloomfield replied: “The scheme met the general objectives of the neighbourhood plan in terms of the number of units proposed.

“The plan didn’t demand a specific type of dwelling for that site. Those who draw them up need to be more specific if that is what they want.

“There is a broad aspiration for affordable housing in the neighbourhood plan but each application has to be considered on its merits.

“There were no strong planning reasons to refuse this scheme and the benefits will outweigh any perceived harm.

“We have to plan for a mix of housing based on current and future needs and, as the population gets older, the district will need more developments such as this.”

District council leader John Cotton said: “The neighbourhood plan was not specific. If there is a lesson, it is that neighbourhood plans need to say more when more clarifies.

“It’s only one site and the policy for that site doesn’t say it shouldn’t be used for extra care housing.

“The plan has a general theme of redressing the age balance in the town but these matters are inevitably open to interpretation, however frustrating that may be.

“I am fully supportive of neighbourhood plans and concerned by anything which could threaten them but it’s possible to achieve a broad range of developments on all sorts of sites.”

He also referred to McCarthy & Stone’s “without prejudice” offer of £800,000 towards affordable housing and infrastructure elsewhere in the town.

Cllr Cotton said: “The offer is way above the statutory contribution — we would usually only get about £300,000 in infrastructure funding for that land so it is quite significant.

“You can’t escape the fact that we need extra care housing and a town centre location is always going to be more desirable for something like that.

“We want to give people as much control as possible over future development but sometimes the market takes things in another direction. That’s not a criticism but something to learn from.

“This is not a loss for the people of Henley. It puts pressure on other sites to deliver more affordable housing but, in terms of the bigger picture, it will meet a need for extra care places across the district.”

In a letter to Mr Barwell, Mr Howell said the committee had ignored the neighbourhood plan’s “primary objectives” which applied to all 11 housing sites earmarked for housing.

He wrote: “There are no specific policies regarding care homes but overall the plan favours affordable housing. The district council recently stated that the Henley area is short of more than 300 affordable homes [so] we cannot afford to lose any of these.

“As the Henley constituency is already at full employment, any argument on the basis of employment does not apply unless additional affordable housing is provided.

“I understand fully national and district policies that are quoted in support of the application but remain concerned at the lightness of weight given to the neighbourhood plan.”

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