Tuesday, 16 August 2022

MP wants more powers to stop unwanted homes

DEVELOPERS are using “sharp practice” to build unwanted housing in towns and villages, Henley’s MP has warned.

John Howell, who introduced neighbourhood planning as part of the 2011 Localism Act, says the law must be tightened up to prevent house builders from undermining the process.

Neighbourhood plans, which name the sites where new housing should be built, are put together by volunteers before going to a referendum.

If more than half of residents who vote approve them, they become legally binding and planning authorities may reject applications for housing on sites which have not been earmarked.

Henley and Harpsden’s joint plan, which names 11 sites where about 500 homes should go, passed a referendum last year while Sonning Common’s, which names six sites for 195 homes, was approved last September.

Woodcote’s plan, which earmarks up to seven sites for 76 homes, was passed in 2014.

But speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday last week, Mr Howell said developers were targeting areas that have only just embarked on the process.

He referred to Benson, which abandoned its first effort to prepare a neighbourhood plan in 2013 but is now working on a “fast-track” version which should go to a referendum by the autumn.

Under South Oxfordshire District Council’s current local plan, which runs until 2027, the village should take 125 new houses, but more than 400 have been approved on farmland north of Littleworth Road and other applications are outstanding.

Neighbourhood plans are also being produced in Goring, Whitchurch and Watlington while Shiplake is in the very early stages.

Mr Howell has urged communities minister Alok Sharma to impose a moratorium on new housing in areas which have started the work.

He says communities could also be monitored to ensure they are seriously putting a plan together and are not merely stalling.

Mr Howell said: “We have looked at bringing back the time when neighbourhood plans carry full weight to when the document is submitted for inspection but even that is not early enough.

“[In some] cases developers are targeting villages that have just started the process so that they can decide where they want the housing to go. That amounts to sharp practice, as in many cases it forces a race between those putting the neighbourhood plan together and the developers attempting to get the planning application through.”

Mr Howell added that more should be done to uphold neighbourhood plans which have passed a referendum.

Last year, after Henley’s plan was made, the district council gave permission for the former Jet garage in Reading Road to be converted into 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly with no affordable element despite the plan earmarking it for 55 flats, of which 22 were to be affordable.

Mr Howell said: “It is a cause of great frustration that so much work has been put into producing a neighbourhood plan and yet it has been overturned. The people who have put these plans together are all volunteers who want to embrace new housing for the long-term sake of their communities.”

Mr Howell said the law should be changed so that neighbourhood plans can also specify the size of housing and the amount of “affordable” units with rents or purchase prices fixed below matket rate, adding: “It is time to be radical about the future and ultra-localist.”

Mr Sharma, who is MP for Reading West, said he would “look carefully” at Mr Howell’s suggestion.

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