Saturday, 20 August 2022

95 new homes would destroy countryside, inquiry hears

BUILDING 95 homes in Sonning Common would destroy the open countryside around the village, a planning inquiry heard.

Tom Cosgrove QC said the proposed development was also in conflict with the village’s neighbourhood plan, which passed a referendum in 2016.

He was speaking on behalf of South Oxfordshire District Council, which refused to grant Gallagher Estates planning permission for the scheme so the developer appealed.

Planning inspector Kenneth Stone heard the appeal at Henley Rugby Club over four days last week.

Mr Cosgrove said the neighbourhood plan had earmarked only part of the 6.65-hectare site off Kennylands Road for the development of 26 homes.

He said: “The appeal proposal would plainly be materially more harmful than the allocation development envisaged. It would... destroy the openness of the northern part of the field, so valued and the protection of which informed the making of the plan.

“The development would radically diminish the current tranquil and unspoilt rural character, which are key characteristics associated with the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“It is also plain that the affection the community has for the village, as so eloquently expressed by residents who have attended the inquiry, is due in large part to the setting of it in the countryside in which it falls and the varying contrast between open field and woodlands.

“One of the expressed key aims of the neighbourhood plan is to protect and enhance such qualities and minimise the [impact on] the surrounding countryside of the village and the AONB.”

Megan Thomas, for Sonning Common Parish Council, said it was feared the development would set a precedent for extending other sites allocated in the plan, including another site off Kennylands Road earmarked for 22 homes.

She said: “That would make it difficult for the local planning authority to refuse other unplanned (non-infill) sites, particularly extensions to the neighbourhood plan housing allocations.

“There are other identifiable sites where the pattern could be repeated.

“Overall there would be unacceptable harm to the spatial and housing strategies in the neighbourhood plan and the proposal would not represent sustainable development.”

Miss Thomas said a 26-house development would impact on the landscape and appearance of the site but this would not be as severe as from 95 homes.

“Most importantly, they are impacts the community has voted overwhelmingly to accept in line with a planning system that is aimed at giving them control over the location of housing development,” she said.

Paul Tucker QC, for Gallagher, said the community should blame the district council, not the developer.

The neighbourhood plan had earmarked sites for 195 homes but it was now out of date as the council had revised the village’s target to 377.

He said: “Understandably, the target of the ire for the local community was the appellant for having the temerity to promote a site which is larger than the one allocated in the neighbourhood development plan.

“However, that ire is ill- directed since the real architect of the piece is the local planning authority for having failed over years to get an up-to-date local plan in place.”

He said the residents’ sense of aggravation did not make the neighbourhood plan up to date.

Mr Tucker also said that Michelle Bolger, the district council’s landscape expert, had “grossly overstated” the landscape and visual harm of the development.

“This is not a valued landscape,” he said. “There will be some negative change but it is limited, very limited, and in no way weighs against the scheme.”

He said Andrew Williams, the developer’s landscape expert, had taken a logical, robust and transparent approach.

“Yes, the development will be visible but hardly out of character and the opportunity for mitigation is obvious and substantial,” he said.

“The concerns that do remain standing are limited, unjustified, misconceived and in any event do not sufficiently weigh against the appeal proposal to justify refusal on an ordinary planning balance, let alone a tilted one.”

Mr Stone is expected to announce his decision within four to six weeks.

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