Monday, 08 August 2022

MP accused of misleading over 'success' of neighbourhood plan

JOHN HOWELL has been accused of “selling” the benefits of neighbourhood plans even though they’ve been rendered effectively worthless in his own constituency.

The Henley MP helped draw up the legislation that was supposed to give communities more say over the types and size of housing developments.

But the Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan has already been ignored twice with the approval of a new care home and a development of 55 “extra care” flats.

South Oxfordshire District Council, the planning authority, said this was because of its failure to identify enough immediately available land for the next five years of housing supply.

Mr Howell defended the law in an interview last week, saying that people had been given “a much greater influence locally over the things that matter”.

Speaking on ITV’s The Last Word, Mr Howell said: “What we have done is given people the ability to create their own neighbourhood plans, for example, and these are being upheld by the planning inspectorate and a lot of faith is being put into them.

“These are coming through as marvellous additions to the planning system that local people are appreciating and appreciating more and more every day.”

But Dieter Hinke, who chairs the Henley and Harpsden plan’s steering group, said: “John is giving the official selling points of what we heard when we started our neighbourhood plan but in reality it isn’t working — it isn’t being adhered to.

“We have now been told by the district council that our plan is out of date because of the five-year land supply, so they will use their own local plan to make decisions for us. Therefore they are ignoring the wishes of our plan.

“It would be nice if John came and spoke to our group so we can have a full and frank discussion on why it has gone wrong for us.

“He should also speak to the district council and say, ‘what the hell is going on here?’”

The Henley plan identifies 11 sites where about 500 new homes should be built by 2027 in order to meet Government targets.

It earmarked the site of the former Jet garage in Reading Road for 55 homes, including 40 per cent afforable.

But in September the district council’s planning committee approved an application by McCarthy & Stone for 53 “extra care” flats for the elderly.

Committee chairman Felix Bloomfield, who used his casting vote to approve the application, said the neighbourhood plan’s policies weren’t specific enough.

Mr Howell agreed the decision went against the plan and urged the Government to step in but planning minister Gavin Barwell declined his request for the application to be “called in” and decided by a planning inspector.

Last month, the council approved plans for an 80-bed care home on a site in Reading Road earmarked for homes in the plan, again on Councillor Bloomfield’s casting vote.

The district council says neighbourhood plans no longer have legal weight because there is a shortage of immediately available housing land across South Oxfordshire. It says no development should be hindered unless it can be proven to cause serious harm to the surroundings.

The council may no longer reject a proposal purely because the location is not included in a neighbourhood plan. Instead, it must prove the harm “significantly and demonstrably” outweighs the benefits of granting consent.

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