DevComms director Charles Bushe provides an update on progress of the South Oxfordshire District Council Local Plan

Opposites attract, they say. However, in the case of the ongoing saga of the South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) Local Plan, the gulf seems too great for any consensus to emerge.

Is the plan a ‘logical and evidence based spatial strategy’, as stated by planning inspector Jonathan Bore, or an ‘enormous disappointment’ and ‘backward looking’, as purported by Cllr Sue Cooper, leader of SODC?

The examination hearings on the SODC Local Plan recently concluded and the planning inspector has now published his preliminary conclusions. Few issues of substance have been raised by the inspector and, broadly speaking, he has agreed that the plan ‘seeks to meet overall housing need in the right places’.

It is entirely unsurprising that the SODC leadership should persist in criticising the plan as it was crafted by their Conservative predecessors, pushed through to examination by a Conservative Secretary of State and considered through examination by the Oxford City Council planning inspector, which has always been a subject of contention.

The Liberal Democrat/Green administration at SODC was elected on a platform of local dissatisfaction with the Local Plan.

They made efforts throughout last year to halt the plan, with a view to ultimately altering its composition.

However, their overtures to that effect generated a broad backlash from neighbouring authorities, who saw it as a threat to the Oxfordshire Growth Deal and the eagerly-awaited millions from the Housing Infrastructure Fund. An additional backlash came from Secretary of State Robert Jenrick who eventually placed a holding direction on the plan for a period, amidst speculation that he would pass control of the plan over to Conservative-controlled Oxfordshire County Council.

In the end however, Robert Jenrick made a direction on the council to progress its Local Plan through examination, without any of the substantial changes that the SODC administration sought.

This may not have made Robert Jenrick especially popular in South Oxfordshire, but having overseen matters on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc in a previous ministerial capacity, one can assume his priority was to prevent a LibDem/Green administration pulling apart what was (essentially) a Conservative plan, thereby ensuring SODC fulfil their duty to have an up-to-date Local Plan.

The main concerns at SODC about the plan focussed, to a large degree, on the number of homes planned (specifically the extent of unmet need from Oxford) and the Green Belt allocations.

The inspector, however, has signed off on the housing number, saying this higher number is required in order to support the ‘national objective’ of providing increased housing supply, as well as addressing affordability issues in the district and supporting the economic growth of the area. Cllr Cooper says the plan would ‘chop up’ the Green Belt, but the inspector believes the Green Belt allocations are appropriate.

Although it is clear that the LibDem/Green administration at SODC is not happy about the plan, the council will now finalise its draft schedule of main modifications for consultation.

All things being well, it is expected that the plan should be adopted by Christmas, after which we can look forward to the next round of local planning which may well look very different to the last one.

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