Forty years after starting work as a graduate planner, Carter Jonas partner Steven Sensecall woke up to find he had been named the property industry’s Leader of the Year in Oxfordshire.

The news reached him via a puzzling message on his phone on September 15, the day after the OxPropFest Awards.

Due to holiday, he had been unable to attend the event so had no idea he had won the award, which capped off the evening for 430 guests.

He told Thames Tap: “I woke up to a WhatsApp from a very old friend of mine who was at the event. He said, ‘congratulations on your award’ and something like ‘your fellow partner Huw Mellor gave a very good eulogy’.

“Then I received an email from Huw who had spoken very kindly (at the event) and accepted the award and the certificate. To say I was surprised is an understatement.”

Leader of the Year, a prized award announced at the end of the evening, recognises an individual whose skills and leadership have benefitted the county. No shortlist is produced for the category. It is discussed by peers and industry experts on the panel of judges in the weeks prior to the event but is a closely guarded secret until the announcement.

The award celebrates a career which started for Mr Sensecall in 1982 as a graduate planner for Kemp & Kemp, where he later became joint senior partner.

In 2017, the business was acquired by Carter Jonas, where he is a partner, head of office and head of planning and development in the southern region.

Over his 40-year career, he has witnessed and been a central player in Oxfordshire’s evolution from a county where the overriding policy objective was to restrain growth to the current position of being a focus for growth, particularly in science and technology related development, and also housing.

He said: “Successive Structure and Local Plans in the 80s and 90s focused on the restraint of growth and protecting the special character and setting of Oxford and its Green Belt. Then in the noughties there was the beginnings of a change in direction and more of an emphasis on growth, which has gathered pace significantly in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Mr Sensecall was around at the start of that change in emphasis. He added: “I was the planning adviser at the Harwell Campus back when it was a wholly owned UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) site with a big fence around it and its own armed police.

“We compiled a report in the early 90s called Laying the Foundations, which was all about how we get some commercial benefits out of that site and its expertise.

“We’ve been acting there ever since. We were involved in the initial masterplanning, and bringing forward the development you see there now, including prestigious projects such as the Diamond Synchrotron and the more recent Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre.

“Similarly, at Culham Science Centre, which is still a wholly owned UKAEA site, we’ve been involved in the various applications for the JET facility and other fusion related development.”

Mr Sensecall went on: “It’s not all been about science and technology; in recent years, we’ve secured Local Plan allocations and planning permissions for more than 15,000 new homes and infrastructure across the county.

“And earlier this year, my team secured planning permission for the university’s new 150,000 sq ft Humanities Centre in the ROC Quarter in the heart of Oxford.”

He added: “For years, we wouldn’t have contemplated touching the Green Belt around Oxford, but people’s attitudes are changing and there is an appreciation that a prohibitive, blanket approach isn’t the way forward.

“As part of the last review of the South Oxfordshire Local Plan, we managed to secure the removal of Culham Science Centre from the Green Belt and the allocation of further Green Belt to the west of Culham as a site for some 3,500 houses plus additional employment development.

“At Culham, the nearby railway station, combined with employment land, supported the rationale that the site would be suitable for sustainable development. As ever, striking the appropriate balance is key to building on land which some might want to see untouched.

“You’ve got to balance between retaining greenfield land with the needs and requirement of policy commitments to further Oxfordshire’s role as one of the engines of the UK economy.”

He suggests the county’s biggest challenges are those of its infrastructure keeping up with its growth. While national and international economic issues will have a bearing, Oxfordshire, thanks to its institutions, especially Oxford University, has strengths which can help it achieve sustainable growth despite looming economic headwinds.

Mr Sensecall said: “History does show that Oxford and Oxfordshire have been quite resilient over the years and have weathered downturns in the economy better than a lot of places. I think a lot of that is down to the nature of those institutions.”

He lives in Sutton, West Oxfordshire and says he is passionate about the prospects of the county and its growth.

He is currently acting for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) on an application for 1,200 homes near Abingdon. There are further plans for 2,750 homes in the built-up area nearby and long-term plans for a Garden Village there.

He is involved in ARC Oxford (formerly Oxford Business Park) as well as acting for clients around the UK.

He added: “It is a great place to be working. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and one might argue it’s time to hang up the spurs, but it is too exciting at the moment.”

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