The Wokingham Paper

Prime Minister’s support helps Sheeplands convince planning inspector for new garden shop

Rob Scott, owner of Hare Hatch Sheeplands

THE PRIME Minister was one of the people who helped convince a planning inspector to grant a popular nursery permission to open a new garden shop. And speaking to The Wokingham Paper this week she shared her delight that the new store is open.

On Thursday, March 14, planning officers agreed that Hare Hatch Sheeplands could relaunch its garden centre just in time for the growing season.

It has been given a three-year temporary licence to turn parts of a glasshouse and an outdoor area back into retail use, almost two years after it was forced to close following legal action by Wokingham Borough Council.

Theresa May, who is the local MP for the Hare Hatch area, said: “This has been a long battle for Hare Hatch Sheeplands and I am pleased that it will now be able to reopen its garden shop.

“Hare Hatch Sheeplands is valued by many local people.”

In his report, planning inspector Ian Radcliffe had noted the level of support Sheeplands had received from the public including letters of support from Theresa May, who has been known to stock up on groceries from the site’s farm shop.

A jubilant Rob Scott is now building up stock in the currently empty buildings.

Under the terms of his licence, he can only sell gardening related items including plants, tools, composts, fertilisers, landscaping and design items, seeds, bulbs, containers and items such as netting and allotment accessories.

Families will also be pleased to learn that Sheeplands will also be able to welcome Father Christmas in December as the judgment allows Mr Scott to build a Santa’s grotto and stock Christmas trees.

“Thank you to everyone who has kept coming to Sheeplands and supported us,” he told The Wokingham Paper.

“It’s been 22 months since the injunction. That’s the time span we’ve been waiting.

“It will be a garden shop for garden-related products.

“We want to get it open ‘yesterday’ to help our customers get ready for the growing season. We already have compost in stock and ready to sell. We know as soon as the weather changes, our customers will be out buying. We’ll be ready for them.”

And with one eye on putting the legal action behind him, Mr Scott has pledged to work with the council going forward.

“There are items we can sell in our farm shop that we can’t sell in our garden shop and we will stick to that,” he said. “For example, we can’t sell logs or kindling in the garden shop.

“Going forward, we want to work with Wokingham Borough Council to ensure that we have a permanent community centre.

“For us it’s all about sustainability and engagement.”

Mr Scott said that he is keen to put the past behind him and look to the future. There has been talk recently that he wanted to establish an Eden Project on the site. He was keen to unpack what he had meant.

“It’s the Sheeplands Project: the logic in my head is that with global warming on the increase, we need to get to grips with for the next generation. If we don’t there won’t be a next generation.

“If it’s going to get warmer, we want the plants to be able to survive with low water supplies like succulents do. We’ll be looking at ways we can help with that.

“We’re not going to build the next Eden Project, just our take on it. It’s all about sustainability and the environment and all that. It’s a dream that we aspire to – to help educate the public and encourage them to build sustainable communities.

“I get excited about the future of our planet.”

But that is some way away for Sheeplands. Right now, Mr Scott’s immediate focus is on welcoming customers to his new garden shop.

The judgment, by the Secretary of State, noted that Sheeplands is in the green belt and stressed that his decision was only for three years. But it also referred to changes in the wholesale market that meant that “smaller traditional nurseries, such as Hare Hatch Sheeplands, now only sell direct to the public”.

The report added: “It is apparent that a sales area selling these items would help safeguard the existence of the nursery and help the business grow by increasing turnover”.

It is expected that the garden shop will create three new full-time jobs and also ensure that work with local schools will continue.

The judgment added: “Considerations put forward [by Sheeplands] are considerable and clearly outweigh the harm to the green belt”.

The three-year timescale would allow “sufficient time to review with the council the requirements for the business and future plans for the wider site. It would also provide an opportunity to assess the effect of the use on the green belt and countryside.”

The planning inspector also noted that there had been no letters of objection from the public, but “a considerable number of letters in support of the appeal and the business have been sent in, including from the local Member of Parliament”.

Rob Scott in the space that houses his new garden shop

Mr Scott thanked the support he had received.

“From my perspective, this is a celebration of surviving the past 22 months and looking to the future,” he said. “If you read the planning inspector’s report one of the reasons why our appeal has gone our way is because of the support of our customers.

“He felt there were special circumstances in our case that were greater than the potential harm to the green belt. Those circumstances were primarily the customer support, the letters, people standing up to speak about us. Clearly the community wants Sheeplands.

“Thank you for all your support. Thank you for coming to keep this business alive: in normal circumstances it would have folded [during the ongoing dispute with the council].”

In response, Wokingham Borough Council executive member for planning Cllr Simon Weeks said: “We are disappointed and confused by this decision and we do fear that our hard-fought safeguarding of the Green Belt could be eroded.

“The permission is temporary (three years) and there are strict conditions attached – it must only be for horticultural sales and the permitted area is only 500 sq m of the 8,000 sq m glass houses previously used.

“A remaining concern is that the landowners may have a long-term ambition to achieve housing on the site.

“The land has been put forward for housing in our current Local Plan Update process.

“Despite this setback, we remain determined that long-term commercial or residential development should not take place on the Green Belt and will continue in our attempts to maintain this position.”

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