Councillor resigns over quashed appeal of plans for AONB ‘retirement village’

A parish councillor who campaigned against plans for a “retirement village” to be built in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has resigned.

A councillor has resigned over a quashed appeal of plans for a Chilterns AONB ‘retirement village’. Photograph: Allan Baxter / Getty Images A councillor has resigned over a quashed appeal of plans for a Chilterns AONB ‘retirement village’. Photograph: Allan Baxter / Getty Images

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 by the village of Sonning Common, within the Chilterns AONB, after concluding that "exceptional circumstances" existed to justify the consent.

The Sonning Common parish council recently said it is to pursue a judicial review following this decision which it described as “an insult”. 

Tom Fort has been a councillor for Sonning Common for 12 years and is to resign in the wake of the appeal; he told the Henley Standard he was “devastated” by the result.

The plans had originally been thrown out by South Oxfordshire 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. 

However, the appeal was quashed when 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”.

When previously responding to the appeal decision, Michael Cann, chairman of the parish council described “the way the rural environment is dismissed” in the planning inspector’s judgement as “disgraceful”. He also said that nearby ponds would 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”. 

The parish council has vowed to push for a judicial review of the appeal, but at a parish meeting this week, Fort told the council that while he doesn’t “regret” fighting the appeal he felt “a sense of responsibility” for the outcome.

He added that the decision showed the village’s neighbourhood plan had “amounted to absolutely nothing”. 

Fort continued: “We’ve on the whole done a terrific job, I just wish Mr Stephens hadn’t been appointed to hear that inquiry.”

Sonning Common councillors have also agreed to write to George Eustice, secretary of state for DEFRA, as well as Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to express their “outrage” over the decision.

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