A planning inspector has approved an appeal for 133 units of housing offering assisted living for older people on a site within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), after concluding that “exceptional circumstances” existed to justify the consent.
Senior Living (Sonning Common) Ltd and Investfront Ltd had previously had their plans rejected by South Oxfordshire District Council to build a “retirement village” on land by the village of Sonning Common.
The National Planning Policy Framework states that planning permission should be refused for major development in AONBs “other than in exceptional circumstances, and where it can be demonstrated that the development is in the public interest.”
South Oxfordshire council had considered the firm’s plans as not meeting the “exceptional circumstances” criteria, as well as stating it would create a “prominent and incongruous intrusion into Sonning Common’s valued rural setting.”
However, when considering the appeal, inspector Harold Stephens found that the area has “an immediate unmet need for extra care market housing.”
He said: “I am in no doubt that the development of 133 units is needed. Firstly, it is needed to address the immediate shortfall in the five year housing land supply in the district, which is only equivalent to some 4.21 years. Secondly, it is needed in this district where at present a population of 15,000 who are aged 75 years or older is forecast to increase to 21,100 by 2035.”
The inspector also found the council’s local plan “is left wanting in terms of addressing a need for extra care”, which he considered a matter of “substantial importance in the public interest.”
Considering whether alternative sites existed outside of the AONB that would be suitable for the development, Stephens concluded that the appeal site “stands alone as the only site in the whole of the district which can deliver extra care market housing and deliver [an affordable housing contribution required by local planning policy].”
Stephens said he did not consider that the appeal site reflected the general attributes of the wider AONB landscape, and was more agricultural in character.
While he found that the development would have “some localised landscape and visual effects”, he concluded that “these would not result in unacceptable impacts on the AONB or the landscape setting of Sonning Common.”
“Overall, the benefits would outweigh the localised landscape and visual effects to the AONB,” the inspector said. “For these reasons I conclude on this issue that exceptional circumstances are demonstrated and that the development would be in the public interest.”
He said that he was in “no doubt that there is a need for this development of 133 units to address the immediate shortfall in the five-year housing land supply; to address the critical need for extra care housing in the district; to assist in the freeing up of family housing within South Oxfordshire and to provide the health and well-being benefits to elderly people.”
Responding to the decision in the Henley Standard, Sonning Common parish councillor Tom Fort, who chairs the neighbourhood plan revision working party said: “I’m bitterly disappointed, both personally because I was so involved and also for the neighbourhood plan and the village as a whole.
“The inspector sided with the developer on every count and decided that the AONB doesn’t matter, which raises questions about the safety of other areas of the AONB.”