Saturday, 18 September 2021

Council says make converting offices into homes harder

Henley Town Council by-election confirmed

PLANNING rules could be tightened in parts of Henley to make it harder for developers to turn office blocks into flats.

A so-called “article 4 direction” could be applied to areas like the Newtown industrial estate off Reading Road, meaning applicants would have to seek the town council’s views on office conversions.

South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, would also regain the power to prevent conversions in order to protect jobs.

The estate is earmarked to remain commercial land in the Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan.

At the moment, anyone wanting permission to turn an office into homes can do so under permitted development rights, a measure introduced by the Government in 2013 to address the national housing shortage.

A developer doesn’t have to go through the full planning process so town and parish councils can’t formally comment while district and borough councils may only refuse applications on limited grounds such as environmental or traffic hazards. However, permitted development rights are revoked in areas that are subject to an article 4 direction so landowners must go through the normal process.

Such directions currently apply in parts of St Mark’s Road, St Andrew’s Road and Reading Road in Henley.

The town council’s planning committee voted to pursue the idea of extending this to other areas in response to plans to convert Anderson House, a two-storey office block off Newtown Road, into homes.

The property, which is now owned by two investors from London, was once home to digital signage company Onelan.

Councillors also noted plans to convert the former Smith Centre offices off Fair Mile into 36 flats.

Ken Arlett, who chairs the committee, said: “We need to look seriously at article 4 directions in order to stop these conversions.

“Having loads of new homes at the entrance to the town is so wrong — this is an industrial estate and should remain that way.” Councillor Kellie Hinton said: “When you look at visionaries like Darren West, who runs the Henley Village business centre at the Newtown site, you want to protect that and even apply some of that magic to the town centre.”

Councillor David Nimmo Smith said: “This is a central government issue and, when introduced, the district council asked for it to be relaxed on commercial estates precisely because it saw things like this happening. Sadly, it wasn’t successful.”

Councillor Arlett and committee administrator Cath Adams hope to meet district council planning officers within the next two months.

He told the Henley Standard: “It seems pointless that the district council’s emerging local plan, which runs until 2033, will ask us to allocate another hectare of employment land when existing sites can be taken away from us so easily.

“We’re going to have meetings with officers and hopefully they will see a bit of common sense. These directions could have been applied to sites like Highlands Farm and the former Empstead Works, which would have stopped them being allocated for housing as they now are.

“There’s so much of this going on and I reckon we’ve had to take well over 100 extra dwellings under permitted development.

“It puts more traffic out there, increasing congestion and air pollution, and takes employment sites away from young people who need them.”

The article 4 directions were last flagged up in 2013 when the planning committee suggested having one for the town centre.

This followed Paperchase’s purchase of the old Clinton Cards unit in Bell Street, which sparked complaints when it painted the frontage sky blue under permitted development rights. The idea was never pursued.

The Government says councils may only introduce article 4 directions in “exceptional” circumstances where evidence suggests that the exercise of permitted development rights would harm the local amenity or the proper planning of the area.

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