Sunday, 29 November 2020

Care home plan sneaks through

A DEVELOPER has been allowed to convert a former Henley gym and swimming pool into a care

A DEVELOPER has been allowed to convert a former Henley gym and swimming pool into a care home despite objections from town councillors and more than 1,000 residents.

Henthames, which bought LA Fitness in Newtown Road for £1.8million shortly before it shut last year, is to build an 80-bed, three storey complex with a new entrance off Mill Lane.

South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee approved the scheme at a meeting on Wednesday night on the casting vote of the chairman Felix Bloomfield.

Planning officers said the scheme would provide jobs and care places that were needed.

The meeting at Didcot civic hall was attended by about 40 opponents including Henley councillors and members of the Keep Henley Active campaign group, who addressed the committee before it made its decision.

They said the development would cause traffic problems because Mill Lane is already often congested at weekends due to the volume of walkers using the river towpath and supporters attending Henley Town FC matches.

In addition McCarthy & Stone has been granted planning permission for 53 “extra care” flats at the former Jet garage, on the corner of Reading Road and Mill Lane, and they said this would exacerbate the problem.

They also opposed the loss of a leisure facility, saying there were no suitable alternatives in Henley. The town’s only remaining swimming pool is at Henley leisure centre, off Gillotts Lane, and they say this is often crowded and is running a waiting list for some children’s swimming classes.

The site is also not one of the 11 earmarked for housing in Henley and Harpsden’s joint neighbourhood plan, which was passed in a referendum in March.

However, planning officers said there was no evidence for these claims and the neighbourhood plan failed to outline specific policies for the site.

Opponents said three local investors had expressed an interest in buying and  re-opening it as a gym and pool but the officers said that had no bearing on the planning process.

Henley town, district and county councillor David Nimmo Smith, a member of the planning committee, spoke against the application but couldn’t vote because he was chairman of the town council’s planning committee when it recommended refusal earlier this year.

He said: “This will have a significant detrimental effect on local residents. Learning to swim should be available to people of all ages, old or young, and certainly not at the crowded pool at Gillotts.

“The application is speculative and runs against the wishes of local people as well as the neighbourhood plan, which doesn’t identify it for any kind of housing and which was so recently approved by the district council and at a referendum.

“A vote for approval will have wide-reaching implications for Henley. It will contribute to a growing age imbalance in the town, much like the McCarthy & Stone application does, when the town council wants a vibrant, mixed community with affordable housing.”

Cllr Nimmo Smith, who stood flanked by Henley Mayor Julian Brookes and Deputy Mayor Will Hamilton, criticised Oxfordshire County Council’s highways officers for failing to raise objections, saying he used to live in Mill Lane and believed a mini-roundabout would be needed at the Reading Road junction to prevent congestion.

Planning consultant Deirdre Wells, for Keep Henley Active, sad: “This is a small lane with a rural character and all the existing buildings on the Newtown Road estate turn their backs on it, so they have no impact. This, by contrast, would have a highly visible and adverse presence.

“Specialist accommodation for the elderly is currently far more profitable as developers don’t have to include an affordable aspect. We have seen, and will continue to see, a swathe of care home proposals for Henley as a result.

“This proposal is also on an industrial estate which is one of the few areas in Henley where businesses can come and grow. The whole estate is the primary employment area in the neighbourhood plan and once this part is gone, it will be gone forever.”

Planning officer Amanda Rendell said people’s desire to retain a gym was not a valid reason for refusal as Henthames could use the building as another leisure facility, such as a cinema, music venue, bingo hall or skating rink, without needing consent.

She accepted the loss was “disappointing” for users but said there was a “historic surplus” of gym stations in the area and market forces would ultimately address any shortfall.

By contrast, there was a growing need for care home places because the population was increasing and people were living longer and anyone moving into a home would free up a house.

She said the swimming programme at Henley leisure centre was only 80 per cent full overall, despite having been briefly at capacity in one class, and it met national guidelines for free space at casual family swims.

Ms Rendell said: “The centre has confirmed that no customer has ever been turned away while 12 new classes have been added to the programme and five new teachers recruited. The needs of the community can be met by other facilities in the area and there are no technical grounds for objection.”

Douglas Bond, for Henthames, said the care home would attract only 135 car journeys a day whereas the gym attracted 630.

He said that, according to national guidelines, Mill Lane could safely accommodate up to 1,250 vehicle movements per hour, prompting loud scoffs from the public gallery.

Town and district councillor Stefan Gawrysiak called this claim was “absolutely laughable”.

He said: “There’s incredible pressure on the pool at Gillotts and this site provided great value when LA Fitness was open. It’s true that the gym attracted more traffic but it all went through the industrial estate and not through Mill Lane.”

Pensioner Sheila Tunstall said: “I’m truly shocked by the sheer venom that’s been directed against this application. I could understand if it was for a rowdy nightclub but it’s something genteel for the elderly. Sadly, it seems we become invisible as we get older.”

The application was supported by four committee members including Councillor Bloomfield while four others, including Sonning Common’s ward member Paul Harrison, were against.

Cllr Bloomfield also used his casting vote to approve the McCarthy & Stone application in July, which Henley residents and town councillors also opposed.

Cllr Harrison said: “I don’t agree with this at all. This is a business area, not a residential area, and it was set aside as such in the neighbourhood plan. We’ve encouraged towns and parishes to make these plans and should not then be ignoring them.

“The access arrangements are ridiculous — the entrance is on the wrong side and I’m amazed and disappointed with the stance officers have taken.”

After the meeting, Councillor Brookes said: “I think I’m going to need some time to calm down after this. I’m incredibly disappointed that we’ve lost another application on the chairman’s casting vote and once again for care accommodation for the elderly.

“We will be looking at what happened tonight very carefully to see if there’s anything we can learn for future applications of this nature.

There’s no suggestion that we don’t want to provide care housing but we need to strike a balance between that and affordable homes for the young. At the moment it seems the playing field is tipped in favour of the former.

“I understand that it will create jobs but the Henley constituency currently has the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country. We would be bringing in lower-paid from outside and they would struggle to find affordable accommodation in the town.”

Michelle Thomas, leader of Keep Henley Active, said: “I could tell from the chairman’s dismissive attitude that he’d already made up his mind.

“Some of the officers’ evidence was new tonight, which meant we didn’t have a chance to dispute it properly. I commend the four councillors who spoke in our favour.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard on behalf of residents and former staff to retain a gym and pool because the market can’t possibly compensate for it. We’re a historic market town with many listed premises and surrounded by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so there’s nowhere else you could build something like it.

“People are going to be incredulous when they hear how distorted this country’s ‘democracy’ has become. There’s all this talk of putting power in people’s hands with things like neighbourhood plans but it’s ultimately weighted in favour of the developer.”

Henthames, which is working in partnership with care home operator Hallmark, is to erect a three-storey red brick building with projecting bays and balconies, a gabled roof, dormer windows and timber-framed sections on several frontages.

The existing access from Newtown Road will be kept for service vehicles and there will be 15 parking spaces on the Mill Lane side, including several for disabled people, with another 18 to the rear plus six bicycle spaces.

The T-shaped building will be divided into three wings with courtyard gardens walled off by hedges around the outside. A line of trees along Mill Lane will be kept and additional bushes will be planted along Reading Road for screening.

Bedrooms will be on the ground and first floors along with nine lounges or dining rooms, assisted bathrooms and toilets, hairdressing and treatment rooms, a cinema, café, physiotherapy room, study areas, a kitchen and laundry facilities. The home will employ 70 people providing round-the-clock care.

Henthames, of Loughton, says there will be “no undue impact” on views and “little or no impact” on neighbours in terms of noise and privacy. It says the home will satisfy a growing need for care home places locally by providing a “full range of care needs”, including for people with dementia.

When it submitted its planning application in November last year, about 300 people wrote letters of objection to the district council while more than 700 signed a petition organised by Keep Henley Active.

The gym was originally opened as The Workshop by former jewellery magnate Gerald Ratner in 1998.

It is expected that B&M Care will soon submit a planning application for a 64-bed care home at the former Henley Youth Centre site in Deanfield Road, which is earmarked for 23 regular homes in the neighbourhood plan. The company, which bought the land last year, sought advice from the district council and is said to have received a positive response.

Town councillors and residents have expressed concern at the number of care home proposals coming forward for Henley and the surrounding area. These schemes are said to be popular with developers because they don’t have to include affordable housing or make statutory contributions towards community infrastructure like roads, schools, health services and public amenities.

Additionally, the district council is under pressure to approve housing applications because it has failed to secure a five-year supply of immediately available housing land. This makes its own local plan, and therefore all neighbourhood plans across the district, invalid and it must look more favourably on residential schemes including care homes.

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