Saturday, 05 December 2020

Cheaper homes for locals only

A FORMER mayor of Henley has called for a plot of public land to be used to

A FORMER mayor of Henley has called for a plot of public land to be used to build affordable housing for local people only.

Gill Dodds says her vision for the site next to Tesco, off Reading Road, would offset the shortage of affordable homes elsewhere in the town.

The land, which is owned by the town council, is currently occupied by the No Limits gym, formerly Exclusively Ladies, and changing facilities for Henley Hockey Club and AFC Henley.

These would be knocked down and replaced with about 30 houses or flats under the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which was passed in a referendum last month.

The document, which names 11 sites suitable for about 500 homes, says all new developments should include 40 per cent affordable units with rents or purchase prices fixed below the market rate.

Mrs Dodds has urged the council not to sell the gym land but to let it and for every home built on it to be affordable because so many people who grew up or work in Henley are being priced out of the area.

Mrs Dodds, who is leader of Henley Residents’ Group but no longer a councillor, said this was the council’s “last opportunity” to take action as it doesn’t own any other potential housing sites.

She urged it to discuss the idea with the Henley and District Housing Association, which lets out 66 homes exclusively to Henley residents on low incomes.

She said the council could collect rent through the association, which would be a better long-term investment than selling the land to a developer.

Mrs Dodds, who lives with her husband Malcolm in Greys Road, said one of Henley residents’ biggest concerns was the cost of housing.

“They’d like their children to be able to stay in the town but it just isn’t possible,” she said.

“By the time he was 24, my father was able to support a family and buy a house in Greys Road on an engineer’s salary but those days are long gone. The town council could sell that site for, say, £3million but is that really what people want?

“I’ve done some basic calculations and the finances for letting it do stack up. It would take much more time, energy and commitment so it’s definitely the harder option but it would pay off.

“We want a balanced community in Henley and social housing would help enormously.

“This needs to be a cross-party issue as I’m sure there are many Conservatives who share these concerns.”

The council is exploring options for the land with estate agent Savills and has agreed to research Mrs Dodds’s idea.

There is added pressure after developers submitted plans for two other sites in the neighbourhood plan without an affordable housing element.

One application is for a 60-bed care home at the former Henley Youth Centre in Deanfield Avenue, which was earmarked for about 23 homes, and the other is for 53 “assisted living” flats for the elderly at the former Jet petrol station site in Reading Road, which was earmarked for about 55 homes.

Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak, also a former mayor, said Mrs Dodds’ idea might prove feasible if these plans were approved by South Oxfordshire District Council.

“If they go ahead, we’d lose about 30 affordable units,” he said. “This could make up for that in line with the neighbourhood plan’s goals.

“There’s a desperate need for affordable homes in Henley and these could be set aside for people with a connection to the town, like established families or key workers.

“I’ve briefly looked at the finances and it appears that, if we retain control of the site and rent it out, it could become a good long-term asset for Henley.

“Instead of just building it, selling it and saying goodbye you could plan for 20 or 30 years’ worth of income.

“We might not be able to get a 100 per cent affordable quota but we might at least secure 80 per cent or something like that.”

Councillor David Nimmo Smith, leader of the ruling Conservative group on the council, said he doubted developers would be interested in an affordable-only scheme.

He said: “This is not the style of business they do. You’re not going to get enough money from that to improve the roads, which is what this town desperately needs... but we need to have that discussion.”

The council has told the hockey and football clubs that they are unlikely to be moved off the site for another two years and it has promised to build a new shared facility on the Jubilee Park sports ground opposite when a development goes ahead.

Chris Baker, president of the hockey club, said: “We’re willing to work with the council.

“We have no particular problem with our current location but it would be a logical improvement for us to be on the other side, so our players don’t have to cross the road to access the pitches.”

Trevor Howell, chairman of AFC Henley, said: “I believe it could be nearer three years before anything happens as there can be delays in the planning process.

“If there’s a chance for us to get a new clubhouse we’re not going to decline the offer. We have about 400 child members and we’d prefer it if they didn’t have to cross the road.

“We welcome the opportunity to create a great new sports centre and I believe that’s the council’s aspiration too.”

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