Monday, 14 October 2019

Councillors frustrated by conversion of offices to flats

A PLAN to convert former offices in Henley into 78 homes has frustrated councillors as they are powerless to prevent it.

AEROF Henley already has permission to create 36 units at the Smith Centre in Fair Mile.

Now it is seeking approval for another 42 by converting six detached office buildings on the site and reducing the number of parking spaces from 149 to 132.

If the plans are approved, the whole development would have 39 one-bedroom flats, 24 with two bedrooms and 15 “studios”. The previous application included some flats with three bedrooms.

The developer doesn’t need full planning permission from South Oxfordshire District Council as converting offices into housing is covered by “permitted development” rights, which the Government introduced to tackle the housing shortage in 2013.

This means both the district council and Henley Town Council have only limited grounds to refuse consent, such as traffic and highways issues, the danger of contamination from previous use, the presence of listed buildings or potential problems with flooding or noise.

A member of the town council’s planning committee said the loss of commercial property would be “devastating”.

Councillor Michelle Thomas said: “On the basis of highway safety and on sustainability grounds, it is not right.”

Committee chairman Ken Arlett said: “It is annoying that we can’t do anything about this.” A transport statement submitted by the developer says: “The proposed development is not considered to result in an adverse impact upon the local highway network, pedestrian and cycle infrastructure or public transport networks.”

The district council is due to make a decision by October 18.

The committee also criticised the proposed conversion of Dragon Court in Station Road.

Groom Estates is seeking to convert the three-storey building into a four-bedroom property with a courtyard garden.

The building was originally part of the Imperial Hotel next door and a parade of shops and is currently used as offices.

Cllr Thomas said: “We cannot afford to lose any more commercial space.” Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “The change of use should be subject to local planning consent and it is absolutely outrageous that we lose these spaces.”

The developer’s application says: “The current owners are moving shortly, leaving a building of high architectural merit to be sitting possibly unoccupied due to oversupply of available office space in the town centre.

“The proposal provides an opportunity to retain a use for the building and provide a small contribution to the lack of available housing in Henley.

“It is considered that it would comply with planning policy and not be harmful to the fabric of a listed building.”

The building is Grade II listed and no changes to the external appearance are allowed.

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