Proposals to redevelop the Hare Hatch Sheeplands site, at Hare Hatch near Wargrave, have been approved by Wokingham Borough Council’s planning committee.
The owners applied to convert the business off the A4 Bath Road, which currently serves a mix of uses including a horticultural nursery, farm shop and café, into a retail garden centre.
Their application sought to house this in a new building alongside a play area, allotments, new parking and overflow car park and a replacement café with 250 seats.
The old farm shop is set to remain in place and sell produce from the allotments, which could be used by local charities and community groups. Several old greenhouses will be knocked down, which will improve the site’s appearance.
The 3.6-hectare site is located in the Green Belt, where development is typically only allowed under “very special circumstances” and not permitted if it could harm the rural character of its surroundings.
At a planning committee meeting on Wednesday night (9 March), councillors decided the scheme’s social, economic and environmental benefits counted as very special circumstances and there would be no harm to the area’s character.
The council received more than 400 letters of support and it recognises that the existing business is highly valued by the community, both in the village and further afield.
Councillors in two neighbouring wards also backed the scheme, as did Theresa May MP, whose Parliamentary constituency of Maidenhead includes the site.
The plan involves a reduction of more than 50 per cent in the total floorspace of buildings and reduction in their volume by about one-third, which weighed further in its favour, as well as a children’s play area open to the public and planting to improve biodiversity.
The applicants, who have run the business since 1993, say they will more than double the number of full-time equivalent jobs from 32 to 69 and they will improve pedestrian links to the site as well as providing electric vehicle charging points.
They say the site must be modernised because it is no longer viable for purely horticultural uses.
Supporters argued the proposal would boost the local economy and make the business, which they described as "well-loved" and a positive contributor to the community, more sustainable.
They said the outdoor space would improve residents' mental health and the new planting, which includes woodland alongside the A4 to absorb carbon emissions, would provide a valuable wildlife corridor.
Cllr Wayne Smith, executive member for planning and enforcement, said after the meeting: “We know that many residents value this business and support the owners’ proposal to further improve it.
“This was a complex decision which required a great deal of careful deliberation, because this site is in the Green Belt and, as our planning officers rightly pointed out, Government policy is generally against intensifying development here.
“However, the planning committee recognised that this proposal will bring a wide range of benefits for all sections of the community, and this justified making an exception in this instance.
“We acknowledge the economic benefits which the applicants have brought to our borough over many years and wish them well in their future endeavours.
“We were delighted to note that the applicant’s planting and biodiversity measures are in line with our own vision for a clean, green borough and doing everything we can to make it a net-zero carbon producer by 2030.
“Finally, we’d like to assure residents that we remain committed to protecting our treasured green spaces from inappropriate development and will refuse any proposals which fail to demonstrate exceptional reasons to allow them.”
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