SODC Approves The Smith Centre Extra Care Residential Development

Despite The Smith Centre on the Fairmile being in Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and not allocated as a housing site in the Joint Henley and Harpsden Neighbourhood Plan the planning application to build an extra care residential development for 108 units was approved at the SODC Planning Meeting last week.

Henley Town Council recommended that the application was refused and Henley’s District Councillor, Ken Arlett called in the application for it be reviewed and debated at SODC.  The Henley Society and Chilterns Conservation Board also objected to the planning application.

The SODC Planning Officer recommended approval of the application.  She informed the committee that the proposal would remove all the buildings on the site and redevelop it as a single building around the retained trees. The footprint of the proposed building would be approximately the same size as the existing buildings, only adding 600 square metres and extending no further to the boundaries. The revised proposal sees a reduction in its total height but it was indicated that this was still taller than the existing buildings.  The Landscape Officer considered that the additional height would not harm the special character or appearance of the AONB due to the buildings green roofs, its screening by surrounding trees. The vast majority of trees were also to be retained, with only a small number of poorer quality trees to be removed. She also noted that 27 additional mature trees would be planted as part of the landscaping scheme.

The Planning Officer gave significant weight to the loss of 40% of grassland on the site, a Priority Habitat which formed as a result of spoil from the development on the site in the 1990s. However, although no like-for-like replacement of the grasslands was possible, the Planning Officer believed that benefits of using the site for older person housing outweighed this loss.

Prior to the meeting there was a site visit for the committee.  A question was asked about the site not being allocated in the Neighbourhood Plan.  The planning officer clarified to members that this did not preclude the proposed development as neighbourhood plans set out local aspirations but do not stop other application sites from being considered. She also noted that the site was in accordance with the Local Plan, specifically on policies on older persons’ housing, which were more permissive for allowing sites which are not allocated to come forward.

The committee inquired into the lack of affordable housing provided on the site. In response, the Planning Officer informed members that the Local Plan only required affordable housing provision if it was viable in the scheme, and as an independent viability assessor agreed that the scheme was not viable if it allocated affordable housing, no affordable housing units had been put forward. For this reason, the Planning Officer considered the application acceptable without the provision of affordable housing.

The committee then discussed the need for older persons’ housing, specifically in comparison to the need for affordable housing, and if one should take priority over the other. The Development Manager clarified that, although there was no specific data about the need for a luxury older persons housing, the need for that type of housing generally had been tested at appeal and inspectors had given significant weight to it due to the need to cater for the ageing population.

Members inquired into the objection from the Chilterns Conservation Board but were satisfied with the response from the Planning Officer that the application had met the National Planning Policy Framework’s test for major developments in AONBs due to its exceptional circumstances being a redevelopment of a brownfield site, providing housing, and that housing was allocated for older people. The committee also considered the planning balance between the ecological harm brought about by the loss of the grassland and its lack of like-for-like offsetting and the other benefits of the development.

The Committee then discussed the Section 106 legal agreement and were satisfied with the affordable housing uplift clause or financial payment in lieu as well as the other financial contributions. They also noted that the applicant had advised they would be liable for £5m of Community Infrastructure Levy moneys if the application was approved.

The committee weighed up the balance of need against the adverse impact on AONB. As some members believed that the application did not enhance or conserve the AONB, and that there were not sufficient exceptional circumstances to permit the major development, they believed that the application should be refused. A motion was moved and seconded, to refuse the application.  The voting was split with the Chair of Planning Committee, David Bretherton giving his casting vote against.

David then proposed a motion to approve the application in line with the Planning Officer’s recommendation which was seconded.  The voting was split again on this with the Chair exercising his casting vote to approve the application.  It was agreed to authorise the Head of Planning, in consultation with the chair.

Chair of Henley Town Council’s Planning Committee, Councillor Tom Buckley said afterwards, “Henley Town Council are disappointed by the recent approval of The Smith Centre for assisted living accommodation, it is felt that the need for standard housing including affordable is greater than high end assisted living accommodation. We already have a large number of care facilities in the area and the addition of this proposal prevents new homes from coming forward on this site. It was expected that this site would come forward for housing in line with the planning permission already in place.   Henley Town Council are now looking into ways in which the new Neighbourhood Plan can be updated to stop this type of development coming forward in future. We would like to thank all those who spoke at the planning decision in our support.”

Cllr Bretherton said afterwards, “The strength of many aspects of the application were   thoroughly discussed including, whether in the opinion of some members the strength of argument for refusal would be strong enough to be upheld at appeal.  In the end the votes were cast and the democratic opinion of the committee was that the application should be approved.”




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