HUNDREDS of residents turned out to a public meeting last night to voice their hopes and fears over a possible 2500 new homes in their small market town.
Princes Risborough has been identified in Wycombe District Council’s Local Plan blueprint as a major site for new housing to cope with growth in the district over the next 15-plus years.
WDC planning officers gave a presentation to over 250 people at the Community Centre over the potential options for housing, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of large or small-scale developments.
Penelope Tollitt, WDC’s head of planning and sustainability, said small number of houses would not attract large-scale infrastructure investments, whereas a “big-bang” approach could secure new schools, road links and health facilities.
And while most residents at the meeting accepted some growth was inevitable, concerns were raised over the extent any possible expansion and the need for the town’s infrastructure to follow suit.
Councillor Gary Hall, who represents the Risboroughs at town and district level, said the town was an easy target for development and sought reassurance that public opinion would be listened to.
He said: “It feels like a giant boulder coming down the hill and there is nothing we can do to stop it, it’s quite alarming really. But the reality is this requirement is coming from government.
“The easy option is to go for 400 houses, but then we would not get any of the infrastructure benefits.
“That would be followed by 400 more houses, then another 400 and we could end up with 2000 houses anyway but with no improved rail line, no new school and no doctors surgeries.
“We are an easy target for new houses and we need to make sure our elected representatives are being honest with us about just how much development is planned.”
With much of Wycombe district covered by protected Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), WDC says the Risborough area is the obvious location to consider new homes as the north falls outside the AONB.
But councillors and planners admit that due to the distance from the motorway, it may act as a ‘dormitory town’ and that attracting new businesses would be difficult.
Planners also noted that new homes, including up to 800 social housing places, may alter the age demographic, which stands at 24 per cent over 65s, compared to a 15 per cent district average.
Princes Risborough has seen very little population growth since the 1980s, with the current population standing at around 8000. If large-scale house building were to take place, the population could stand at 14,000 by 2031.
Cllr Bill Bendyshe-Brown questioned why Princes Risborough must accommodate more people when the bulk of the growth has been in the south of the district.
And the Conservative insisted that a new bypass for the town was an urgent and non-negotiable part of the deal.
Questions from residents included whether any new infrastructure could be guaranteed, whether flooding risks had been taken into account and whether affordable housing for young people could be delivered.
There are fears over the extent of any new development snowballing, but Ms Tollitt reassured residents that the figures of 2500 homes was very unlikely to be exceeded over the 17-year Local Plan period.
Resident John Hughes said new homes may simply attract London commuters, who would contribute to the town’s economy far less.
He said: “The big question is, do we have evolution of a small market town or revolution to become a suburb like Wycombe or Aylesbury. That I think is the biggest issue facing Princes Risborough.”
Ms Tollitt said the reason for a Local Plan was to control development and have more of a say the town’s future, calling it a “planned evolution” of the town.
The meeting was chaired by town mayor Alan Turner, who reassured residents the council would work hard to preserve the way of life in Risborough and maintain its market-town feel.
He said: “We want to retain the character of the town - that is why I joined the council in the first place.
“I fell in love with this community and wanted to give something back. We will do all we can to make sure it is protected.”
A workshop-style discussion meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 17 at the Princes Centre from 7pm, with WDC urging residents to get in touch to register for the event.