A public hearing took place on Monday (1 August) at Henley Town Hall to review the proposed allocation of land at Northern Field, Highlands Farm which has been put forward in the revised Joint Henley and Harpsden Neighbourhood Plan (JHHNP) for 110 homes, a new site for the Chiltern Centre and land for the Henley Community Land Trust to build 20 affordable homes.
Independent Examiner, Andrew Ashcroft had invited Henley Town Council, South Oxfordshire District Council along with representatives from the proposed developer, Crest Nicholson and The Chilterns Conservation Board who had strongly objected the site being included as it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to hear their views.
The inquiry covered four considerations:
- Impact extent of the AONB (if any)
- Impact mitigation (if needed)
- Implications of modifications
- Policies working to and is the site sustainable
Henley Town Council were asked to explain their reasons for selecting the site. They explained that the Neighbourhood Plan Committee had worked with AECOM Infrastructure & Environment UK Ltd who had reviewed 41 sites that were put forward taking into account the policies in adopted Local Plans as well as national planning criteria. They also undertook public meetings and a public consultation survey. SODC then gave support for the site against the South Oxfordshire Local Plan policies.
The Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB), who despite not requesting a public hearing in their response on the revised Neighbourhood Plan, suggested the Town Council’s Environmental report, Landscape Assessment and Site Assessment had not addressed the AONB but did not give reasons. They felt the site should not be an ‘exception site’ as it was in the AONB and referenced two policies. They said they were “impressed” with the existing Highlands Park site and how well it fitted in to the AONB!
Jodie Rhymes, Henley Town Council Planning Officer then explained if there was an impact to the AONB, how they would resolve any issues stating that they would look at the environmental report, site assessment, visual impact, social issues, local planning policies. David Withycombe from Crest Nicholson, Landscape Management Services explained how they had resolved issues on the original site and that this would carried over to the Northern Field. He referred to a visual impact assessment report. The CCB responded to say that the reports should have gone further but did not say how.
Henley Town Council confirmed that there were 384 families on the waiting lists for houses in Henley and that Crest Nicholson were the only developer so far in the existing Neighbourhood Plan that kept to 40% affordable houses and the original owner of the site had donated a piece of land to the Henley Community Land Trust to build a further 20 affordable homes. The CCB responded by talking about the planning balance and how the numbers of houses were between 3-6% over the numbers needed and suggested that more houses should be built in Lower Shiplake (Harpsden parish) sites that were put forward in the review.
Discussion then went on to talk about the growth in Henley and how sustainable the site would be in terms of bus service, schools, sports centre, walking routes which Henley Town Council confirmed were all in line with local policies and this site was within the town boundary. Inspector Andrew Ashcroft asked the CCB if they thought the site was sustainable to which they replied it would be if it wasn’t in the AONB.
Chair of the JHHNP Committee, Councillor Ken Arlett said, “Having sat through over 5 hours of the inquiry I believe the HTC officers and JHHNP Committee could not have done anymore over the past 4 years than to come up with a plan that has been 99% supported throughout its review. I will be bitterly disappointed if Mr Ashcroft does not support the work that has been carried out by all concerned.”
Mr Ashcroft will now write a report and make a recommendation on the revised JHHNP. South Oxfordshire District Council will then review the report and make a decision. A public referendum will then take place to adopt the revised plan.