Monday, 21 June 2021

Planners raise doubts over plan to redevelop former garden centre

PLANS to redevelop a disused garden centre near Henley have hit an obstacle.

Alex Hersham and his mother Aida Dellal, who own the former Wyevale site off Reading Road, near Shiplake, are proposing to build up to 34 new homes together with either offices or a care home.

But planning officers at South Oxfordshire District Council say the pair have not yet proved that the 4.5-acre site can’t be restored to its previous use.

The land is earmarked for industrial or commercial use in the joint Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum in March.

Ms Dellal, who also owns the Fawley Court estate, off Marlow Road, and her son have been marketing the land through Henley estate agent Ballards since they bought it in 2009 when the garden centre shut.

They say they have struggled to find a buyer who wants to build offices or a new garden centre but have received more than 30 enquiries from developers looking to build housing or a care home. They also say that the site would not turn a profit if it was used solely for commercial purposes.

But economic development officers at South Oxfordshire District Council, whom the owners asked for advice on their outline planning application, say more evidence is needed that there is no demand for business use.

They say the council has received more than 20 enquiries for industrial space in Henley in the past year, including one from a garden centre operator who considered the Wyevale site.

They say employment land in the district must be protected and should only be released for housing if there is evidence of no market interest following a year of “active and effective” marketing.

In a memo to planning officers, team leader Melanie Smans says: “The applicant has not provided evidence of the lack of market interest in the last year following an active market campaign. The emphasis is on active marketing rather than merely placing the site on a website… in principle the team would not support the proposed change of use.”

A full planning application would have to include the methodology used by surveyors in valuing the site, a record of all enquiries and the reasons why a sale didn’t go ahead as well as evidence that “reasonable efforts” were made to retain a garden centre.

Dr Smans says this would help the council assess the employment value of the site and whether the change of use would be of “greater community benefit”.

Ms Dellal and her son originally hoped the site would serve as a new home for Toad Hall garden centre, which was intending to relocate from its premises next to Fawley Court.

However, this fell through because the Wyevale premises had become too dilapidated.

They claim a development with 34 homes and 6,000 sq ft of offices would make a
£2.9million profit while the community would benefit from a statutory contribution of £400,000 towards roads, schools and other amenities such as doctors’ surgeries and sports facilities.

An alternative would be to have 25 homes and 35,000 sq ft of care accommodation plus a smaller quantity of offices and educational facilities.

Mr Hersham said: “A handful of enquiries is academic if the site is only viable at near double the current going rents.

“However, we will work with the district council to come up with a marketing proposal to supplement the years that the site has been on the market.

“It is not clear at this stage how we should market the site, as it is not a typical office building that a developer is trying to repurpose but an unviable development of brownfield land.

“We understand the economic development team’s desire to maintain [commercial] space locally and that was one of the reasons we proposed a viable mixed-use site.”

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