Sunday, 05 December 2021

Landowner donates Henley field to build affordable homes

Noble gesture for affordable homes

A LANDOWNER is offering to donate a field on the outskirts of Henley for up to 60 affordable homes to be built.

Juliet Noble, who owns the 6.9-hectare plot immediately south of the Watermans allotments off Reading Road, says she wants to develop it for the community’s benefit.

She hopes to build houses or flats for rental by key workers on a non-profit basis and would set up a trust to preserve this use forever.

Ms Noble, whose family have owned land in the area for more than a century, outlined her vision at a meeting of Henley Town Council’s neighbourhood plan committee.

She was one of 10 people who presented sites for inclusion in the revised Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan, which will earmark land for new homes until the year 2034.

The current version, which names 11 sites for about 500 homes, passed a referendum in 2016 but needs updating to reflect an expected increase in quotas.

Ms Noble, who lives in Herefordshire, said she could develop the land in four phases over the next decade or so, building between 10 and 15 units in each one.

The properties could be managed by the Henley and District Housing Trust and she hoped that rental income from each phase would fund the next one.

Housing would only go on the north-western half of the field with a new access off Reading Road, as the rest of the land is in a flood zone. The town council’s planning consultant AECOM, which assessed every potential housing site, says the flood risk makes it unfit for development.

But Ms Noble’s agent Christopher Newns said the risk was only one in 1,000.

A “green buffer” of vegetation to the west would remain and a “large” amount of landscaped open space would be created for community use.

The land is worth up to £500,000 but this could increase tenfold if the scheme was given the go-ahead. If extra money was needed to launch it, some plots could be sold for buyers to build their own homes.

Ms Noble’s great great grandfather bought the Park Place estate in Remenham after moving to the area in the late 1800s.

The family lived there until the Forties, when her grandparents sold it and moved to Harpsden Court, which her great uncle Leonard Noble had purchased some decades earlier.

They sold this in the early Seventies but kept the field, which had been part of the estate, and passed it down to Ms Noble and her sister.

She told the meeting: “This is the last piece of land owned by the Nobles and I feel I’ve come by it through a pure accident of birth. Over the years I’ve turned down approaches by numerous developers but now I feel it’s time to do something.”

She said she would consult the public and conduct a survey to gauge the best types of property to build.

Mr Newns said: “This would be a permanent legacy for the residents of Henley and Harpsden to deliver a broad cross-section of community housing and public open space. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“The land is probably worth between £20,000 and £30,000 per acre but it could go up 10 times and Juliet is willing to give you that. I doubt you’ll beat that offer.”

Kester George, chairman of Harpsden Parish Council, said villagers would like to buy the field to preserve the green space separating the village from Henley.

He said Ms Noble should sell to them and use the proceeds to buy and redevelop the site of the former Chilterns End care home in Henley instead.

That site, off Greys Road, is earmarked for about 27 units in the existing neighbourhood plan. Henley councillor Stefan Gawrysiak said the land could cost £10 million to buy.

Ms Noble said: “The residents would need extremely deep pockets for that to happen.”

Councillor Donna Crook said: “I want to thank Juliet for her kind offer as we need landowners like her. There’s a snobbery around social housing but there isn’t enough for people who don’t go on to university.”

Councillor Laurence Plant added: “This is an incredible opportunity and something we’ve wanted for years. We shouldn’t miss it — there’s a lot of detail to be discussed but it can be achieved.”

Councillor Michelle Thomas said: “I’m aware of AECOM’s comments on flooding but given Ms Noble’s philanthropic intent, I would hope any problems could be overcome.”

Ms Noble first suggested the idea in 2017, when she told her agent not to talk to Harpsden Parish Council until the town council had decided its next steps.

At the time, Councllor George said it was an inappropriate site for housing and he was “outraged” to learn of the proposal through a report in the Henley Standard.

Speaking after last week’s meeting, he said he supported social housing in principle but the field had poor access and had been  under water for months following flooding in 2003.

Cllr George said: “Social housing is the only kind which is genuinely needed and not merely desired here so I’m entirely behind it. That’s why we’re pushing for any additional development at Highlands Park to be social because it’s far more suitable.

“Crucially, Ms Noble’s site is in the green ribbon, which keeps the two settlements apart.

“The proposal was a preposterous appeal to the more naive members of the committee. If the offer hadn’t come in, who on earth would look at that site and think it was a good location?

“Developing it would entail expensive dredging and although they say they’ve spoken with highways experts, it’s meaningless until the specifics are drawn up.”

Cllr George said Ms Noble could sell to a developer for regular housing, which would make a profit.

She told the committee she would be happy to sign a contract forbidding this as a condition of the land being earmarked for development.

Meanwhile, a derelict garden centre which was earmarked for business use in the current neighbourhood plan could now be given over entirely to housing.

Aida Dellal, who owns the former Wyevale site off Reading Road, near Shiplake, was granted planning permission last year for 40 homes and 10,000 sq ft of offices after persuading the district council that pure commercial use would be unviable.

Now she wants it earmarked for 60 homes with no business units.

She says even a small office block would struggle to attract tenants but building more houses with two bedrooms on average would meet demand from younger residents.

Mrs Dellal, who owns Fawley Court, would increase the number of “affordable” units to be sold under shared ownership schemes or leased at social rents from 16 to 25. This is slightly higher than the 40 per cent quota required under planning policy.

Her son Alex Hersham, who presented the scheme to the committee, said commercial usage was “doomed” as it had been marketed for this purpose fruitlessly for more than seven years.

He said 60 homes would attract “significantly” less traffic, particularly during the rush hour, than a mixed-use scheme.

Mr Hersham added: “We’re in a good position to deliver. We could have detailed planning consents very quickly and be ‘shovel-ready’ in a matter of months.”

Cllr Thomas asked Mr Hersham if his mother would donate the land entirely for social housing like Ms Noble.

He said she would consider some social rental units but added: “There’s currently outline consent in place and we have to be realistic given the state of play.”

Members asked whether the site could take some shops to build a “sense of community” but Mr Hersham said there was too much competition from Tesco in Henley and the Corner Shop in Shiplake.

Jodie Rhymes, the town council’s planning officer, said the new neighbourhood plan must include an extra hectare of employment land and so scrapping the proposed commercial units would make this harder to achieve.

The site is next to Thames Farm, where Taylor Wimpey is building 95 homes as part of its Regency Place development.

Several neighbouring sites have housing schemes in the pipeline, prompting fears that the “green gap” between Shiplake and Henley is being eroded. Thames Farm Barn, which is on a separate plot north-east of Thames Farm, has consent for conversion into four homes but the owners are now proposing eight under the new neighbourhood plan.

Their agent Les Durrant told the committee that the site wasn’t big enough for 10 homes, which would require a 40 per cent “affordable” element.

The exact details remain to be confirmed but Shiplake resident David Lloyd warned it could help create “Shipharphenley-on-Thames”.

The Bryant family, who own the farmhouse to the north-west of Thames Farm, also want to build three more detached houses in their grounds.

A planning application was refused earlier this year but their agent Louise Morton, of Quadrant Planning, told the committee they were to appeal.

She said it was an “obvious” site to earmark as 18 neighbours supported development while only one opposed it and the land wasn’t a protected landscape.

Cllr Gawrysiak said the idea was “problematic” due to the poor access up a narrow track and the lack of affordable housing.

Meanwhile, 41 homes could go on a 2.2-hectare site at the southern end of the Swiss Farm camp site, off Marlow Road, Henley.

The Borlase family, who have owned it for three generations, say they want to benefit the community so are “flexible” about what is built.

AECOM says the site isn’t suitable because it is in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

But Jake Collinge, the family’s agent, said this could be overcome through landscaping.

The development could include a community orchard and allotments. Cllr Plant said: “It sounds fantastic but ‘viability’ can be used as a way to get rid of community elements further down the line. I would hate this to be great rhetoric only.”

Neal Thomas, for the Borlases, said: “I’ve been speaking with the family for more than three years and [for them] it’s really whatever the council’s feedback indicates. I see no reason why we can’t look into social rental.”

Cllr Gawrysiak said: “It looks good in terms of sustainability... we have a benevolent developer who’s proposing something not driven entirely by profit.”

Meanwhile, the Chiltern Centre for disabled teenagers and young adults off Greys Road, Henley, could be converted into three homes.

The charity would move to larger premises on land next to the Highlands Park housing development, also off Greys Road, where developer Crest Nicholson has offered first refusal until 2025.

This would allow it to look after children, which it used to do until Ofsted revoked permission last year because it didn’t have room to segregate age groups.

Trustees have secured an architect’s services free of charge and will start negotiations with Oxfordshire County Council over the terms of leaving.

When it bought the premises from the authority in 2005, it agreed to pay an “overage” of half the proceeds from any sale before 2027. It hopes this can be waived.

Paul Barrett, who chairs the charity’s trustees, told the committee that the sale should make £1 million.

He said: “We’ve been looking at Highlands Park for many years... it has the advantage of being just around the corner for our users.”

Mayor Ken Arlett said: “We don’t need those three houses but we do need the respite centre, which is the real benefit.”

The scheme would depend on the former Chilterns End care home, which is next door, being sold for housing by the county council.

Other sites being considered for inclusion in the revised plan are:

• A 3.4-hectare field at Gillotts School which, as the Henley Standard reported last week, could sell for up to £20 million to take about 50 homes. The proceeds would fund a refurbishment of the school and its sports facilities.

• The field next to Highlands Park, which could take 110 homes as well as the new Chiltern Centre.

• A field west of Fair Mile, Henley, which could take 15 additional units on top of the 60 units currently earmarked. It is subject to an application for 72 homes by Thames Properties.

The committee will discuss all submissions and stage a public consultation, possibly at Henley town hall if the covid-19 threat passes, before drawing up a final draft plan.

If approved, any changes will become a legally binding aspect of South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning policy.

Cllr Arlett said: “We had some excellent presentations, although it’s always questionable whether developers will achieve everything they promise.

“However, they’re saying the right thing — that they want affordable schemes with proper landscaping and greener energy.

“Our next step will be to identify which are best for Henley and Harpsden.”

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