WEST Berkshire Council has voted in favour of using its statutory powers to unlock some of the land needed to deliver the 232-home Market Street development.
In doing so, it has avoided becoming embroiled in a legal wrangle and being in breach of an agreement with developer Grainger.
However, the council’s opposition leader Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) used the meeting as an opportunity to once again criticise the scheme and the number of affordable homes it will bring, describing it as “a disgrace”.
Planning permission for the project, which has been in the pipeline for a number of years and is seen by the council as a key gateway to Newbury, was granted back in 2017.
The council owns the majority of the site, but there are a number of private rights of way, restricted covenants and other issues standing in the way.
The council has the power to override these under Section 203 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
This land appropriation process is necessary where agreement cannot be reached or the beneficiaries of any rights are unknown, as is the case here.
The power extends not only to development by the local planning authority itself, but also to any person authorised by that authority.
West Berkshire councillors were asked to vote in favour of appropriating the land at a meeting last Thursday.
Leader Graham Jones told his colleagues it was “a matter of housekeeping” and described it as a “belt and braces approach” for the local authority.
In a report, which has been circulated to councillors, it says: “As part of the council’s contractual agreement with Grainger, signed in 2013, the council can be asked to consider the appropriation of the land in its ownership.
“Grainger has made that request.”
In addition to the private rights of way and restricted covenants, there is also the potential for interference with rights to light of adjacent properties.
The council report adds: “Any interference without lawful authority could create a risk of an injunction being sought by those whose rights and interests are interfered with.”
However, the council says that the ability to interfere with these rights is vital in enabling the development to proceed.
In addition to the 232 new homes, the plans for Market Street include improvements to the adjacent train station and the building of a new multi-storey car park.
It will also see the bus station relocated to the Wharf.
The council faced a backlash when it announced it was to give the land, at the time valued at £3.9m, to Grainger for free.
Grainger later caused more anger when it said that only 13 of the homes would be ‘affordable’, for viability reasons.
When asked to justify ‘giving’ the land away, the council’s chief executive Nick Carter pointed to the numerous benefits the scheme would bring.
However, at last week’s meeting, Mr Dillon said: “The council own a piece of land which will be redeveloped for private market rent with a handful, a smattering, of affordable housing.
“How the council cannot demand a full quota of affordable housing on its own land is a disgrace.
“The overall scheme sees us gain a car park after we lose a car park, gain a bus stop after we lose a bus stop and then see a development that doesn’t address the housing needs in the district.
“In regards to the appropriation, I would like to know has the council reappraised the commercial values within the contra, given the time since they were last sold?”
The council’s portfolio holder for culture and environment, Dominic Boeck (Con, Aldermaston), replied: “To respond to councillor Dillon’s point about the revaluation, it really has nothing to do with this technical proposal that requires us to ensure the development goes ahead unhindered.”