HUNGERFORD Town Council has officially started the process of launching a legal challenge to West Berkshire Council’s housing allocation Development Plan Document (DPD).
A judicial review is the ‘nuclear option’ in the battle to prevent 100 new homes being built on land south of Priory Road.
But it is the only remaining weapon in the arsenal for opponents of the proposed development.
An alternative strategy – having the issue called in by the Secretary of State – has been torpedoed.
John Oakes, a senior planning officer with the National Planning Casework Unit, which handles such matters for the Government, said he was content that the issue “should be dealt with by the local planning authority”.
On Monday night, June 19, an extraordinary meeting of the full town council met to debate the potential costs of a judicial review.
Councillor Richard Hudson gave a verbal update on the process, but warned: “If we press the button it could be very expensive, especially if we lose and have to pay the other side’s costs.”
The town council could potentially face a bill of up to £35,000, the meeting heard.
A judicial review would challenge the legality of the DPD on the grounds that exceptional circumstances for building in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) had not been made out as required.
In addition, the meeting heard, the application had started with a five-hectare plot which had subsequently grown to more than seven hectares, apparently without proper scrutiny.
Mr Hudson warned: “If West Berkshire (council) feel they can get away with this, it creates a precedent for other locations in the AONB.”
District councillor James Podger (Con, Hungerford), who initially objected to the application because he felt there were better options available, sent a statement to the meeting in which he said: “The DPD document is well reasoned and the case for development to the south of Hungerford, including the traffic impact assessment, when read in full, is convincing.
“The town council’s preferred sites within the town boundary are fatally flawed and would not negate any traffic issues in the High Street.
“Wherever additional housing is sited in Hungerford, there would be an increase in traffic.”
He said he believed any legal challenge would be “unsuccessful and costly” and pleaded with the town council not to “waste ratepayers’ money” on one.
Mr Podger said of the scheme’s opponents: “Yes, they shout loudly and rightly make their views known – they have every right to protect their homes and local area. Nonetheless they are in the minority.
“The majority of Hungerfordians are supportive of additional housing and accept the decision as to location, which has been through an open consultation period and borne out by the independent inspector’s decision.”
Ironically, Mr Podger’s letter may have had the opposite effect to the one he intended.
Councillor Doris Colloff said: “Based on that wonderful report from Mr Podger alone I would like to propose that, in fact, we go ahead (with a judicial review).”
Councillor Carolanne Farrell said: “That’s only James’ opinion and he’s not a planning expert.”
Her council colleague, David Small, disputed Mr Podger’s assertion that the town was largely in favour of the development, adding, “public opinion is decisively against this development, as far as I can see.
“And if we get permission to go ahead it could put pressure on the other side to settle.”
Several members of the public who attended the meeting offered to donate to a ‘fighting fund’ for the legal challenge.
One resident said: “There has been complete contempt from the district council towards local views.
“The choice before you now is either to fight – with a good chance of winning, in my view, or to capitulate.”
Mrs Colloff formally proposed that the town council began the process of applying for a judicial review before the deadline the following day (Tuesday).
The motion was carried unanimously, to applause from the public.