Secretary of State suspends South Oxfordshire’s Local Plan Process

On Wednesday 9th October, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, suspended South Oxfordshire District Council’s (SODC) local plan process. In his letter, the Secretary of State explains that this is an interim order while he considers whether or not to “give a [final] direction to South Oxfordshire District Council in relation to the Plan”. A full copy of the letter is reproduced at the bottom of this page.

Since the May elections, when the Liberal Democrats and Greens took over this previously Conservative Council, the status of the SODC local plan has been uncertain. Although the plan was finalised shortly before the election, the winning parties campaigned heavily on a perceived unfairness that SODC had been allocated too many homes, and that number should be brought down and the plan withdrawn. In the Vale of White Horse, the Liberal Democrats won in the May elections on a similar platform, but their proposals to withdraw their plan fizzled out after warnings of speculative development and the loss of the Oxfordshire Growth Deal were made by central Government.

Despite warnings against withdrawing the Plan from the leaders of Oxford City Council, Vale of White Horse District Council, and Oxfordshire County Council, SODC’s Cabinet voted on 3 October to scrap the plan, with a binding vote of the full council scheduled for 11 October before the Secretary of State suspended the process. As of time of writing, the CEO of SODC has written to the Secretary of State to “question whether it was within the secretary of state’s powers to issue a holding direction preventing a plan being withdrawn from examination”, and this story will likely develop further over the coming weeks.

The SP Broadway view

The Secretary of State faces a binary option. Does he overrule SODC and impose the Local Plan using his statutory powers, or does he back down and allow SODC to withdraw their Local Plan?

In normal times, the former would be more likely. The Government is keen to intensify development along the Oxford-Cambridge Arc with more homes and a new Expressway, which it sees as a key driver of economic growth. The SODC Local Plan also underpins the £215 million Growth Deal agreed between central Government and the Oxfordshire councils, which will fund additional infrastructure across the county, and is seen as the flagship for such agreements. Passing the plan is thus a significant political priority.

However, an election is on the horizon, and the Secretary of State will be aware that the two constituencies the Conservatives won in 2017 in South Oxfordshire (Henley and Wantage) are top Liberal Democrat targets. Overruling SODC will trigger a substantial backlash against the Conservatives, and risk the loss of these key seats.

This decision is ultimately political, and finely balanced. Should the Secretary of State back down and allow the plan to be withdrawn, then SODC’s weak land supply will attract many speculative developments. The leader of Vale District Council has also noted that the collapse of the SODC local plan “would mean Vale losing our 5 year land supply”, also opening them up to speculative development. Clients with land in Oxfordshire should keep a close eye on what decision the Secretary of State eventually makes.

Letter from Robert Jenrick to Cllr Sue Cooper, Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council (09/10/19)

“Dear Sue,

Following South Oxfordshire District Council Cabinet’s decision on 3 October to recommend withdrawing the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan (“the Plan”), I am considering whether to give a direction to South Oxfordshire District Council in relation to the Plan under section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (“the 2004 Act”).

The government remains committed to making sure every community has an up-to-date and sufficiently ambitious Local Plan. Withdrawing the Plan at this stage is instead likely to create uncertainty and expose communities to speculative planning applications.

Therefore, in exercise of the powers under section 21A of the 2004 Act (inserted by section 145(5) of the Housing and Planning Act 2016), I hereby direct South Oxfordshire District Council not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan, while I consider the matter further. This direction will remain in force until I withdraw it or give a direction under section 21 of the 2004 Act in relation to the Plan.

I would like to work constructively with you to ensure that South Oxfordshire is able to deliver the high-quality homes and infrastructure required to support jobs and growth in the local community. As I set out in my letter to you on 26 August 2019, progressing the Plan is an essential step to delivering the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal. I have therefore asked my officials to get in touch with your officers to discuss next steps and will keep you updated while I consider this matter further.”

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