Friday, 12 August 2022

Government refuses to order review of care home approval

THE decision to allow the site of the former LA Fitness gym in Henley to be turned into an 80-bed care home will not be scrutinised by the Government.

Planning minister Gavin Barwell has refused a request by opponents for it to be “called in” and examined by a planning inspector.

The Keep Henley Active pressure group, which believes the site in Newtown Road should remain a leisure facility, said South Oxfordshire District Council should not have awarded planning permission last month as the land wasn’t earmarked for housing in the Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan.

They said the closure of the gym and swimming pool had put heavy pressure on Henley leisure centre, which now has the town’s only pool.

Neighbouring residents argued that the plans by Essex developer Henthames would cause congestion on Mill Lane, where the main entrance will be.

But Mr Barwell said the call-in procedure could only be used “very selectively” and he was satisfied that the LA Fitness decision should have been taken locally.

He said the Government “remained committed to giving more power to councils and communities to make their own decisions on planning issues”.

It is the second time this year that the Department for Communities and Local Government has declined to call in a planning decision involving a development in Henley.

In August, Mr Barwell refused a request by Henley MP John Howell to reconsider McCarthy & Stone’s proposal for 53 “extra care” flats at the former Jet garage in Reading Road.

The site was earmarked for 55 regular dwellings in the neighbourhood plan, including 22 affordable units, whereas McCarthy & Stone’s proposal included no affordable element.

Now Keep Henley Active is considering considering whether to request a judicial review of the LA Fitness decision at the High Court.

If this was successful, planning permission would be revoked and the district council would have to decide the application again.

Michelle Thomas, of Keep Henley Active, said the group might start a fund-raising campaign to support any legal action, which could cost five figures. She said: “I think we’ve got good grounds for a judicial review and it could be a way of stopping the process.

“I didn’t have high hopes after the minister didn’t call in the Jet garage application. It was worth a try but I’m not surprised at the outcome.

“Right now, the district council will be working to issue its decision notice and I imagine Henthames will be lining the bulldozers up.”

Karin Rutter, of Mill Lane Residents’ Association, called the minister’s decision “disappointing”.

She said: “I suppose the Government didn’t think this was enough of a high-profile case to get involved, which is a great shame as I think it would have had a different outcome if it was called in. It would have been a real favour to the people of Henley.”

The residents are considering taking legal action to have a shortcut across the site from Mill Lane to Newtown Road recognised as a public footpath.

They say it has been used for this purpose for several decades and have asked Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, to designate it as such but the council says this could take many years.

Mrs Rutter said: “It’s fine to wait that long if it’s a path across a field but if that site is developed we will miss our chance.” Henley Town Council, which oversaw production of the neighbourhood plan, considered seeking a judicial review of the McCarthy & Stone decision but decided it was not worth the money.

Mayor Julian Brookes said: “I’m disappointed to hear the Henthames decision hasn’t been called in.

“We are aware that Keep Henley Active and the residents’ association are considering their next steps and are keeping in close contact with them.”

Henthames, which bought the site shortly before the gym shut in August last year, says the scheme will improve the look of its surroundings while offsetting an anticipated shortfall in the number of care beds locally.

The district council’s planning officers said there were sufficient alternatives to LA Fitness in Henley and there was still capacity at Henley leisure centre.

They argued the traffic increase on Mill Lane would be insignificant.

The scheme was passed on the casting vote of Councillor Felix Bloomfield, the chairman of the council’s planning committee, as was the decision on the Reading Road development.

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