Hugh Blaza has spoken to figures at the heart of the South Oxfordshire Local Plan saga and offers a full assessment of the entire wrangle – which is far from over.
The story so far… In late 2018, South Oxfordshire’s Conservative-controlled district council (SODC) published its Local Plan 2034.
Responding to the calls from Oxford City Council to help with its housing needs and with pressure from the county-wide Housing and Growth Deal to release land for development, the plan contained unprecedented (for SODC) proposals for the allocation of Green Belt land for development.
Local opposition was considerable and – possibly, in part, a result of the Stop the Concreting Conservatives campaign by local grassroots activists, A Better South Oxfordshire, – the Conservatives were booted out in the local elections in May 2019 to be replaced by a coalition of LibDem and Green Party councillors.
In response to the likelihood that the new councillors would tear up the draft plan and start again from scratch, and in doing so jeopardise the Housing and Growth Deal, central Government in the form of Robert Jenrick, the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, brought the new council’s growing momentum to a juddering halt, first by forcing it, at the 11th hour, to cancel the meeting at which this decision was likely to have been taken and then by threatening to task the (Conservative-controlled) Oxfordshire County Council to deliver the plan.
Pragmatically, if they wanted to retain any element of control, the SODC councillors had little option but to agree that they would allow the process of approving the draft 2034 plan to proceed.
As Sue Cooper, leader of the council said at the time: “It’s disappointing the Secretary of State has felt it necessary to intervene, however the council remains committed to working constructively with the MHCLG and the Secretary of State as well as engaging productively with our partnerships across Oxfordshire.”
For which read: “We’ll have to do what we can to make the most of it.”
All of which rather leads to the conclusion that the districts are having to do as they’re told: the Housing and Growth Deal is a creature of central Government and it will be delivered, come what may.
The Government may, up to a point, allow the districts to flex their muscles by shaving the proposals in a way which they hope will please their residents, but the ultimate outcome can’t really be in doubt.
As another councillor we spoke to put it: “The Government will just expect the districts to sort it out between themselves.”
The draft plan is now with the planning inspectors. They have raised questions and the questions have been answered by the districts. But a public examination is still to take place and, yes, we’re in lockdown.
And the deadline imposed by the MHCLG to approve the plan by the end of the year has not been extended.
Feelings on the ground couldn’t be stronger; from one SODC parish alone, over 800 letters of objection to the draft plan were lodged.
If the views of the residents are to receive proper consideration, it is difficult to envisage what impact they will have on the inspectors, or the ability of the inspectors to properly interrogate those views over video links.
But the remit of the inspectors is, in any event, not so much on the merits of the plan, more on whether it is legally compliant and drafted on sound principles. These are technical matters where technical points will need to be made. Whether the residents have the stomach, let alone the cash, to appoint barristers to represent them is moot.
Meanwhile, SODC is continuing to press its case as best it can. In a letter to the MHCLG in March, the chief executive of the council informed the Minister that it still wished to ensure the environmental standards (climate change), regeneration and housing delivery would be incorporated in the measures contained in the Local Plan.
Whether that will be enough to pacify local feeling remains to be seen.
Image by Andrew Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13233347
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