The Stonesfield Annual Parish Meeting is on Wednesday 8 May 2024 at 7 Stonesfield Primary School. For the reasons this sets out, it is of crucial importance that as many people as possible who care about whether or not major housing development proposals in or around Stonesfield are appropriate should attend.

The threat

The immediate threat we face is what we think is a grossly inappropriate proposal to build 32 houses on the Manor field to the right of the top of Combe Road (see plan). The National Planning Policy Framework (central government’s principal planning guidance) requires the refusal of permission for “major development” in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, other than in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that the development is in the public interest. The NPPF defines “major development” as “For housing, development where 10 or more homes will be provided, or the site has an area of 0.5 hectares or more.” Thus, the Manor field proposal would be major development and, as Stonesfield is in the Cotswolds AONB, we say the proposal is, we believe, grossly inappropriate.

Notwithstanding this, a campaign in favour of the proposal is being orchestrated by a planning consultant acting on behalf of the landowners. Ironically the essentially profit-making scheme to build very expensive market houses is being cloaked in a claim that it will add substantially to the supply of “affordable” houses in Stonesfield. To this end the planning consultant would appear to have persuaded Stonesfield Community Trust to support him.

Stonesfield Community Trust

It is important to note that, whilst it may rent out houses at below market rents, Stonesfield Community Trust (SCT) is not a registered provider of social housing regulated by the government’s Regulator of Social Housing, who inspects registered providers to make sure they meet the Regulator’s standards, e.g. standards of maintenance. The SCT is an autonomous trust run by five trustees. The appointment of new trustees is at the behest of the existing trustees. We have seen no evidence that in recent years the SCT has bought any new property with a view to letting it to residents of Stonesfield or anyone else.

The Manor field proposal is in its early stages. No planning application has been made. The planning consultant is hoping to engender support for any planning application from Stonesfield Parish Council and residents. He no doubt intends to claim, in applying for planning permission, that any evidence of support from residents shows that the development proposal is in the “public interest.” At the outset he claimed that the proposal would include 2 small houses “donated to the village (The Community Trust perhaps)… so that in perpetuity the land and dwellings are under the sole control of the village.” SCT is not “the village” and is run by the self-regulating trustees, not the Parish Council. SCT has no history of being accountable to the village or even holding public meetings before its involvement in this proposal.

The development

The consultant has suggested there may be “a small group of one and two bed apartments and dwellings…. Perhaps 12 units?” The remainder of the development would be, three, four and five bedroom homes. They will be in groups according to size and expense with the largest and most expensive being closest to the view over Baggs Bottom. He has more recently suggested that, as well as the 2 dwellings “donated,” the developer will offer 13 other units to SCT as “social housing.” It is not clear yet what he means by this, but it seems to be that they will be offered for purchase by SCT as “affordable” houses. It is a normal planning requirement that a development of this kind must include 50% “affordable” houses. Therefore, apart from the 2 units proposed to be “donated”, this proposal appears to give nothing more than would normally be required. “Affordable” in this context means 80% of market price, i.e. expensive. Whether SCT would be able, or when it comes to the crunch willing, to buy on this or any other likely basis must be questionable, particularly in the light of SCT’s recent history of not buying houses. It is also unclear as to whether this would be allowed by WODC as the normal mechanism for securing affordable housing, called a “s106 agreement” would seek bidders from registered social housing providers and SCT is not such a registered provider. The proposal will not therefore be, as now falsely presented, a means of ensuring a substantial increase in the availability of modestly priced new houses in Stonesfield.

The Parish Poll

The law provides for 10 local electors to demand a Parish Poll at the Annual Parish Meeting. By law such a demand cannot be refused. The poll would be a referendum of the parish electors with a yes/no vote in answer to a question on the ballot paper. The question on the ballot paper will be determined at the Parish Meeting if a demand is made. Mark Hatton, describing himself as “Chairman Stonesfield Community Trust,” wrote on 4 February 2024 to the Clerk to the Parish Council, proposing a Parish Poll to ask the question: –

“I support the development of land at Stonesfield Manor, Combe Road, Stonesfield, Oxfordshire OX29 8QB if it provides 15 new affordable homes for local people and these were owned by Stonesfield Community Trust – Yes/No.”

Mr Hatton persuaded the Parish Council in February at its ordinary meeting to accept a demand for a Parish Poll by 10 local electors who were present to support the development proposal. This was in spite of objections from others present, i.e. some of us, that acceptance of the demand at an ordinary PC meeting would be unlawful. The following day West Oxfordshire District Council confirmed that indeed it was unlawful and the decision was annulled. Therefore, it is expected Mr Hatton will try again at the Annual Parish Meeting, at which it is lawful for such a demand to be made.

The risk

The site is in the Village conservation area and is part of the designated Environmentally Sensitive Area of the Upper Thames Tributaries. An application for planning permission for such a major development would be subject to very similar objections to those which were successfully made in achieving the rejection on planning appeal and in the High Court in 2019 of the Woodstock Road development proposal for 68 houses by Cala Homes. If permission were granted for the Manor field, e.g. on the misplaced basis the development is in the public interest because of the provision of 15 “affordable” homes, including 2 “donated” to SCT, this would significantly erode the planning precedent value of the planning inspector’s decision in the Cala Case. It would create a risk of further successful applications for major development on other sites around the village, e.g. Charity Farm 2 and/or a rerun of the Cala proposal. Stonesfield might well suffer the same fate as Long Hanborough and soon be unrecognisable as the village we know today.

Social housing provision does not need to be part of a major development

We believe most village residents are opposed to such major development in Stonesfield. The responses to the Neighbourhood Plan Survey last year indicated this very strongly. Many attended the February PC meeting and their objections were voiced by some of them. We regret the division in the community which is being fomented by the planning consultant. We want to work with SCT to explore possibilities for social/affordable housing which would not lead to unacceptable harm to the AONB. We also believe a Parish Poll will be a waste of taxpayers’ money – the Parish Council will have to foot the considerable cost. Moreover, the result of any Parish Poll is not binding upon the Parish Council or indeed the planning authority. The National Association of Local Councils shares our view that generally Parish Polls are a waste of time and public money. In the hope of avoiding a wasteful Parish Poll, we have initiated discussions with SCT with a view to identifying alternative suitable sites for “social housing.” We are in favour of truly “affordable” housing. The attempts to find suitable social housing sites are on-going. Social housing and other truly affordable housing does not have to be provided as part of a major development which is predominantly very expensive market housing. The very thorough Housing Needs Assessment, which has been carried out in the course of the preparation of a draft Stonesfield Neighbourhood Plan by a professional housing expert member of the Parish Council Steering Group, concludes that there is no requirement for new market housing, only scope for a small “rural exception site” (“exception” that is to the general rule against planning restrictions on development in the AONB which would otherwise apply) specifically for the sole provision of social/affordable homes.

Come to the meeting 8 May, 7pm at the school

However, currently we believe we are still faced with an SCT demand for a Parish Poll. Therefore, if you are opposed to such inappropriate major development, we urge you to attend the Annual Meeting and to ask your friends and acquaintances who would also oppose such development to attend. Whilst a demand for a Parish Poll by 10 electors cannot be refused, the question to be put to the electors in the Parish Poll will be that which is determined by a majority vote after discussion at the Annual Meeting. Therefore, the more support we have the better. The question could be along the lines: –

Do you agree that Stonesfield Parish Council should support proposals for suitable sites specifically for social housing, up to 9 houses, but should not support any proposed “major development” in Stonesfield, i.e. where 10 or more homes would be provided, such as the 32 houses currently proposed for the Manor field?
From the SUSTO committee