‘An insult’: Council to pursue judicial review following ‘retirement village’ approval in Chilterns AONB

A south Oxfordshire parish council is to pursue a judicial review following the approval of plans to build a ‘retirement village’ in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Last month, a planning inspector approved an appeal by developers to build 133 units of housing offering assisted living for older people on a site within the Chilterns AONB by the village of Sonning Common, after concluding that "exceptional circumstances" existed to justify the consent.

The decision has been described by the Sonning Common parish council as “an insult”. 

The plans had originally been thrown out by the district council on the grounds that the development would cause harm to the environment, and the parish council raised more than £20,000 to hire a planning consultant to fight the developer’s subsequent appeal. 

When considering the appeal, planning inspector Harold Stephens found that the area had "an immediate unmet need for extra care market housing” and that the appeal site did not  reflect the general attributes of the wider AONB landscape, being more agricultural in character. 

From this Stephens concluded that, while the development would have "some localised landscape and visual effects", these would not result in “unacceptable impacts on the AONB or the landscape setting of Sonning Common”.

The inspector added that the housing units were needed to address the “the immediate shortfall in the five year housing land supply in the district, which is only equivalent to some 4.21 years” - despite this, just last week South Oxfordshire district council declared it has a housing land supply of over five years. 

Speaking to the Henley Standard, Michael Cann, chairman of the parish council, said: “It’s an insult to the people of Sonning Common and to the people of South Oxfordshire.”

“They really care so much about their environment,” he said, adding that it had been “a saviour” for the residents during the pandemic, “so to come out of these restrictions and have it taken away is disgraceful”. 

Cann continued: “We remain completely stunned by the conclusion and the commentary in the report. We are angry and dismayed that the [village] plan wasn’t given weight.

“We will also be writing to the minister of environment and the minister of housing expressing our dissatisfaction of the outcome of the dismissive way the inspector deals with the plan and the Chilterns AONB.”

Cann also described “the way the rural environment is dismissed” as “disgraceful”, saying that nearby ponds will be threatened by the development and that residents have noticed in recent years a decline of wildlife such as the muntjac deer. 

“We’re keen to establish our own environment plan”, he said, “but that will be impossible if our hands are tied by planning applications. The wildlife will be affected by this decision which is totally unfair.”

Next week the council will be discussing steps to push forward with the judicial review.

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