Sunday, 14 August 2022

Councillor defends decision not to vote

A HENLEY councillor has defended his decision not to vote against two controversial planning applications for care housing that would have stopped them being approved.

David Nimmo Smith said he abstained on both occasions as he felt that this would have given the developers a reason to appeal as he was on record as having opposed them.

He didn’t vote on an application by Henthames to turn the site of the former LA fitness site in Newtown Road into an 80-bed care home or on plans by McCarthy & Stone to build 53 “assisted living” flats at the site of the former Jet petrol station in Reading Road.

Both applications were approved by South Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee on the casting vote of the chairman.

Councillor Nimmo Smith said that he couldn’t vote on either application because he was chairman of the town council’s planning committee when it recommended refusal of the applications.

But now he admitted that he was eligible to vote.

He said: “What I did not want was a legal challenge. It could have been argued that actually I had made my mind up before the application came to the district.

“I talked it through with the district council and they said it was a pragmatic approach. I didn’t like doing it but I just wanted to make sure the actual decision was squeaky clean.”

Cllr Nimmo Smith is a Conserative town councillor and is Henley’s representative on Oxfordshire County Council but represents the Woodcote and Rotherfield ward on the district council, meaning he was eligible to vote.

He said he did not want to be accused of “predetermination”, having already voted at town council level as this would give the applicants a reason to appeal, especially when the committee was being recommended to approve the plans.

“My reading of the tea leaves is they would have probably put in an appeal and may have had a strong case for winning it,” said Cllr Nimmo Smith. “I did what I did — it was the appropriate thing at the time.”

However, he was criticised by Michelle Thomas, leader of the Keep Henley Active campaign group, which opposed the care home plan.

She said: “I’m pretty disappointed. I thought from a governance point of view he was unable to vote. To know that he could have actually stopped both of these going through... I’m shocked really.

“I can understand from a professional and personal point of view the stance he has taken, but I don’t think he needed to worry about that. He’s a local person, he lives in Henley and he’s the one closest to the issues in Henley.” Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak, a member of the opposition Henley Residents’ Group on the town council and a district councillor, said Cllr Nimmo Smith should have voted because he had been democratically elected to give his opinion.

“Having David vote would have changed both of these decisions because they were tied 4-4 and they went through on the vote of the chairman, so it would have made an absolute material difference.”

Henthames, which bought the Newtown Road site for £1.8million shortly before the gym shut last year, was granted planning permission last month despite objections from town councillors and a protest petition signed by more than 1,000 residents.

Planning officers said the scheme would provide jobs and care places that were needed.

Opponents said it would cause traffic problems in Mill Lane and called for the gym and pool to be re-opened.

The site is also not one of the 11 earmarked for housing in Henley and Harpsden’s joint neighbourhood plan, which was passed in a referendum in March.

Cllr Nimmo Smith spoke against the application at the committee meeting, saying: “This will have a significant detrimental effect on local residents. The application is speculative and runs against the wishes of local people as well as the neighbourhood plan.”

McCarthy & Stone’ sapplication was approved in July, again despite protests from town councillors and residents.

The neighbourhood plan earmarked the site for 55 ordinary homes, 40 per cent of them “affordable”.

Cllr Nimmo Smith said at the time: “So much for our neighbourhood plan — coach and horses driven through it.”

A district council spokeswoman said Cllr Nimmo Smith’s decision not to vote was the correct thing to do as his position “could be judged to be pre-determined”.

“If there is any doubt or there could be the appearance of bias, we advise councillors to step down because making the wrong choice could lead to a legal challenge,” she said.

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