Solicitor Kayleigh Chapman, in Blandy & Blandy’s planning & environmental law team, looks at the current situation regarding South Oxfordshire District Council’s (SODC) Local Plan.

Submission of the Local Plan 

SODC submitted its Emerging Local Plan (Local Plan) to the Planning Inspectorate for examination on March 29, 2019. The Local Plan set out SODC’s vision for development up to 2034.

In May 2019 local elections were held and the political make-up of the district changed. Previously, Conservatives held the majority but this was lost to the Liberal Democrats and Green Party.

The Liberal Democrats had expressed dissatisfaction with the Local Plan in the run up to the local elections. One of the primary concerns was the number of homes the Local Plan sought to provide over the plan period. Another was the impact of development in the Green Belt and environmental protections.

Scrutiny of the Local Plan

At a scrutiny committee Meeting on July 2, 2019 the committee voted to recommend to the council to withdraw the Local Plan from examination.

On July 18, 2019 the council resolved to:

(1) Express its determination to maintain its housing land supply and avoid speculative development;

(2) Express its continued support for the Housing and Infrastructure Fund (HIF) funding and infrastructure projects that could be delivered by it;

(3) Ask officers to explore with Oxfordshire County Council (OCC), Homes England and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government options for protecting the HIF funding whilst enabling the council to address concerns about the current emerging Local Plan 2034 including (but not limited to) climate change issues, Oxford City’s unmet housing need, and to report back to cabinet and council;

(4) Recognising that the climate change is all too real and is recognised to be of key statutory importance under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the associated objective of ‘zero carbon by 2050’, express its wish to do all that it can to respond through the Local Plan process;

(5) Agree that as soon as practicable, alongside satisfactory progress being made on resolving issues in the emerging Local Plan, work on a subsequent Local Plan shall commence, strengthening climate change considerations.

Following that resolution, various neighbouring local councils and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to SODC and vice-versa about the direction SODC were taking in relation to the Local Plan.

The Government’s response

On October 3, 2019 the cabinet resolved to recommend to the council to withdraw the Local Plan from examination.

On October 9, 2019 the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government wrote to SODC to confirm that he was exercising powers under Section 21A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (2004 Act).

Section 21A gives the Secretary of State the power to issue a temporary direction pending possible use of intervention powers in relation to Local Plans.

The result was that SODC were prevented from taking any steps in connection with the adoption of the Local Plan until such time as the Secretary of State withdrew that direction or made a direction under Section 21 of the 2004 Act. The Local Plan in the meantime would have no effect whilst the direction in force.

This has practical implications for SODC in that the Local Plan being at an advanced stage (having been submitted for examination) could be given weight as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications. Following the making of that temporary direction the Local Plan could no longer be given any weight by decision makers.

On January 7, 2020 the Secretary of State wrote again to SODC confirming that he was considering making a direction under the 2004 Act, inviting OCC to prepare the Local Plan.

On February 11, 2020, OCC’s councillors debated how they might respond to the Secretary of State if he invited the county council to prepare or revise the Local Plan. The outcome of that debate was that OCC would accept any invitation by the Secretary of State.

The current position

The temporary direction made by the Secretary of State remains in force pending any further direction or withdrawal. OCC have not been formally invited to prepare or progress the Local Plan but have indicated that they would accept any invitation to do the same. SODC remains of the view that local plan making should remain with the District Council.

We await a formal response from the Secretary of State as to next steps – will he invite OCC to prepare the Local Plan or will he issue a different direction?

See also: SODC Local Plan: an affront to democracy or sensible planning?

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