Planning matters

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In with the old, in with the new – re-using and redeveloping Reading Prison
‘Fixing our broken housing market’, the Government’s Housing White Paper puts great emphasis on brownfield sites as priority locations for residential development. Aligned with this is the Housing and Planning Act 2016’s new secondary legislation for brownfield land registers and for ‘permission in principle’. The Government’s focus therefore is very much on promoting delivering new homes on brownfield sites. However, many of the brownfield sites which remain vacant or underused are difficult to develop and heavily constrained, and present interesting challenges to realise their development potential. As part of a wider Government initiative to provide over 3,000 houses on the sites of several former prisons, it is anticipated that the disused Reading Prison building will be redeveloped. As a brownfield site in a prime location in Reading, but with significant heritage value, the prison demonstrates both the opportunities and difficulties that arise when considering their re-use and/ or redevelopment.   The Prison has recently shown its popularity as a temporary tourist attraction. It was the centrepiece to the highly successful Reading Year of Culture 2016 with an exhibition held in tribute to author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, one of its most renowned inmates. The exhibition attracted around 50,000 visitors before closing at the end of last year. Decommissioned in 2013, the current prison structure was opened in 1844, and lies within Reading Abbey – which was founded in 1121. Wilde, Prisoner C.3-3, spent two years incarcerated there between 1895 and 1897, following which he wrote his last work ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’(1898). The Grade II listed building also sits within a designated Area of Archaeological Potential; it costs an estimated £20,000 a month to maintain, following its closure and despite standing empty.   Portrait of Oscar Wilde in his former cell Source: BBC The Prison forms a key feature in the town’s historic landscape and it is anticipated that development proposals will serve as an ‘anchor’ within Reading’s emerging Abbey Quarter. The prison stands alongside several other structures which are designated as scheduled ancient monuments or listed buildings, including Abbey Church (the burial place of King Henry I); a Tudor royal residence and Jane Austen’s school. Given the historical context of the site, addressing heritage and archaeological constraints will be essential. The Reading Prison Outline Development Framework (2015) highlighted a number of issues which will need to be taken into consideration by any forthcoming proposals for the site. Subsequently the site has been included in Reading Borough Council’s Draft Local Plan (April 2017). Policy CR13a Reading Prison states that the “building would be used for residential, commercial offices or a hotel, and could include some cultural or heritage element that draws on its significance”. It suggests that the conversion of the Prison could result in the creation of 65-90 dwellings. This figure is significantly lower than the 300 homes’ estimate that Reading MP Rob Wilson is reported as having suggested ‘could be built’ on the site in November 2015. It is clear any proposals for the site will have to be sensitively designed to ensure the conservation of its historic integrity. However, as demonstrated through the example of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, proposals such as this present a unique opportunity to conserve integral heritage assets whilst delivering much-needed housing.   These discussions come at a critical time for Reading, which needs 699 new homes a year until 2036 in order to meet current housing need1. A scheme of the scale suggested promises to help in contributing to alleviating local housing pressures.   Reading Abbey, Berkshire Source: BBC Whilst Reading Borough Council have already adopted the Outline Development Framework (in March 2015), Lord Keen of Elie, Lords spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, stated on 14 December 2016 that a new planning brief for the redevelopment of the Prison is expected to be taken to Reading Borough Council for approval towards the latter half of the year. Meanwhile conservation work on the Abbey Ruins and Inner Gateway has already begun.    Finding a way to deliver new homes at the Prison would prove a fascinating and challenging scheme. It has the potential to introduce a new use into one of Reading’s best known heritage assets, conserving for future generations its important history. Lichfields has an extensive track record of helping to achieve planning permission and listed building consent for development within the Thames Valley and in sensitive heritage and conservation locations. For more information on our experience or to discuss any potential development opportunities relating to heritage assets, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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The demand for homes that the economic success of the Oxford City region brings with it is a key issue across the Thames Valley. In 2015, Oxford City was among the top 5% least affordable locations in England excluding London.Whilst the need for housing arising in Oxford is clear, the rate of housing delivery has been poor, with Oxford City's own figures forecasting that just 206 dwellings will be completed in 2015/16.  In essence the City is constrained by tightly drawn boundaries, the Green Belt and other factors (including areas at risk of flooding).  The surrounding Oxfordshire Local Authorities have recognised these constraints and have spent the last two years, working alongside other stakeholders, to seek to accommodate Oxford City's “unmet need” elsewhere within the County.The requirement for this collaborative approach was recognised at an early date by all the Local Authorities as failure to comply with the “duty to co-operate” jeopardised the progression of each Authority’s Local Plan.  Cherwells Local Plan proceeded last year only on the proviso that it was revisited shortly after adoption to help meet Oxfords unmet need. More recently West Oxfordshires Local Plan didn’t get off the starting blocks pending, in part, clarification of their requirements to help cater for Oxford’s unmet need. OGB Process The Oxfordshire Growth Board comprising all Oxfordshire Authorities, working alongside Oxfordshire County Council, OXLEP and other stakeholders have sought a collaborative approach.  Following some early skirmishes on the capacity of Oxford City to accommodate development agreement was quickly established on a “working assumption” that the Authorities would collectively need to accommodate an additional 15,000 new homes in the period to 2031. Discussions on apportionment have taken longer (agreement was originally due 12 months ago) perhaps reflecting the political ramifications.  The exercise of seeking to apportion housing need arising in Oxford City could seek to reflect a number of factors including housing market areas, transport connections, migration flows, commuting patterns, environmental and other constraints and the sustainability of further development in / adjacent to existing settlements.The two authorities that have recently progressed draft local plans (Cherwell and South Oxfordshire) have assumed that the need would be split equally between the surrounding authorities. Figure 1: NPPF Constraints and Green Belt in OxfordshireFigure 2: Main Public Transport Nodes in Oxfordshire and Journey Times In truth the process of apportionment now proposed within the OGB report for next weeks meeting follows a less analytical approach.  Instead the Growth Board have sought to assess the availability and suitability of specific large sites (capable of accommodating 500 + homes) informed by a series of high level studies on Green Belt, Transport Capacity and Infrastructure capabilities, Education Provision and Habitats Assessments.   A number of sites were excluded from the analysis (including land at Carterton, Faringdon and Long Hanborough) on the basis of being “less directly related to the City” (pg 23).  The remaining sites were classified as “Red,” “Amber” or “Green” with the latter then aggregated to result in the recommended apportionment for each Local Authority Recommended Apportionment for unmet need from Oxford City Source : OGB September 2016 Committee Report (pg 7) Commentary Despite the 12 months delay in the original schedule the process to date has been relatively quick and the comprehensive solution sought should prevent a series of bilateral agreements being challenged or collapsing at Local Plan Inquiries.It is unusual for Local Authorities to have involvement in the identification of sites (and subsequent apportionment of housing allocations) within neighbouring authorities.  The OGB Committee Report for next weeks meeting hints at some of the tensions that have arisen through this process.  The initial list of sites for assessment were put forward by each district themselves or “the partners on their behalf” (pg 23).  The partially subjective nature of assessing all 36 sites, and the scope for disagreements, is reflected in the commentary on the Oxford Golf Club site.  This records that “there was not agreement within the Project Team on the score for this area.  The Rural districts consider that it could be judged to be green if considered on a consistent basis with other areas of search.  Oxford believes that it is not possible to mitigate the hydrology concerns that development would cause.”   The site is therefore “amber” recommended for further assessment but the potential 1,100 homes arising are not included in the recommended apportionment.The OGB will vote on the recommended apportionment next week.  All of the Authorities have been party to the assessment and conclusions and some have been preparing the ground in advance.  In July 2016 West Oxfordshire submitted an ‘Expression of Interest’ to central government to create a locally-led Garden Village to the north of Eynsham.  Land at Eynsham forms West Oxfordshires recommended apportionment in the OGB conclusions.Other Authorities may be less responsive to the OGB recommendations.  South Oxfordshire have long resisted proposals at Grenoble Road with Councillor John Cotton, leader of South Oxfordshire stating in February 2015 “we still believe Grenoble Road is the wrong solution” and it was excluded from the very recent (July 2016) iteration of the local plan.  It is however considered “reasonably sustainable” and forms a “green” site within the OGB analysis with it’s potential to accommodate 2,200 homes inflating South Oxfordshires apportionment to 4,950 dwellings (up from the 3,750 dwellings they proposed two months ago in the local plan).The OGB report is clear that whilst it will dictate apportionment across the County “the short list of areas of search that underpins it must be viewed as indicative” (pg 6) and this exercise “is not seeking to allocate or release sites” as “subsequent Local Plan work may bring forward other sites” (pg 32).  This recognises that competing sites remain open for consideration and the matter will be resolved through forthcoming local plans processes across the County.It goes without saying that housing development at this scale will bring economic benefits to these authorities. Recent research by NLP suggesting that the provision of a further 14,850 homes will result in: Around 1,800 FTE construction jobs with; An additional £371.4 million of resident expenditure within shops and services each year; Result in New Homes Bonus Payments equivalent to £148.9 million across the Local Authorities over a set six year period; and Provide additional Council Tax Revenues estimated to be equivalent to £26.2 million each year And so next Mondays meeting may provide some pieces of the jigsaw for meeting Oxfords unmet need but piecing the jigsaw together seems likely to go on for some time yet.  

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