Wednesday, 03 March 2021

Ex-mayor criticises planning reforms

A FORMER Henley Mayor has criticised the Government’s proposed reforms of the planning system.

Julian Brookes was speaking on behalf of the Henley Society, a conservation group that seeks to preserve the town’s heritage.

The Government wants to give developers greater freedom to convert business premises into housing in order to meet national targets and boost economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the proposals, the range of commercial properties that could be converted has been extendeed to include restaurants, indoor sports centres and creches.

Mr Brookes, who represented the Conservatives on Henley Town Council for four years and was mayor in 2016, criticised the plans in a letter to the Planning Inspectorate. He said: “We refute the claim that the proposals will breathe new life into our town centre.

“Further deregulation of planning through permitted development will prevent the proactive and positive management that our town centre needs and simply enable change of use to more profitable housing rather than enabling a greater range of uses.

“We support the Government’s desire to redeploy empty office buildings to fill the housing shortage but that is not what is happening.

“There are too many stories of businesses being refused new leases and having to leave their office to empty the building. The idea of widening of development rights to include land within conservation areas would appear to contradict the protected areas policy and has left us in disbelief.

“So many local permitted developments have caused so much disquiet that the entire concept now has a negative image. Broadening of the rights within conservation areas, especially in historic towns such as Henley, will not be well received if it bypasses the planning authority’s management and local community input through the formal planning process.

“A wholesale review of the high street and town centre involving the input of the local community would be the appropriate way of managing this period of rapid and dramatic change.”

Mr Brookes also criticised plans to reduce the public consultation period from 21 days to 14 days, saying it would add stress to overloaded planning departments “at the expense of local goodwill”.

He said: “Local inhabitants and statutory consultees have a busy life beyond planning applications and may not forgive a government which attempts to curtail their freedom of expression.

“Fourteen days is too short for consultation on such major proposals and the existing 21-day period should be retained.

“Fourteen days is the length of many annual holidays so people could be denied the opportunity to provide evidence simply because they are away.”

Mr Brookes concluded: “We accept that our high streets and town centres are currently facing immense challenges due to changes in shopping and leisure habits but these challenges must be addressed in a planned and evidence-based way and not by allowing the market to decide in a random and potentially counterproductive manner.

“It is certainly desirable to bring more residential use into town centres and this has long been an objective of urban renewal policies.

“But in Henley, where residential values outweigh the value of other uses, there is a danger that this change could permanently destroy the essential local function of our town centre at a time when ‘shopping local’ has become increasingly important.”

Michelle Thomas, who chairs the town council’s planning committee, has said the reforms could kill the high street and Kester George, who chairs Harpsden Parish Council, has described them as “stupid”.

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