Jenrick puts his foot down

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The extraordinary tale of South Oxfordshire’s Local Plan had another twist this week as Conservative Secretary of State at MHCLG, Robert Jenrick, took steps to prevent the authority making “any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan”. In other words, to prevent the coalition of Liberal Democrats and Greens  from withdrawing the Plan from Examination.

So what has actually happened?

To understand the context of the decision in South Oxfordshire we have to go back several of the many, many steps which got us here.

The draft Local Plan was started two administrations ago, under then council leader John Cotton (Conservative). Cllr Cotton had been in a running battle with Oxford City Council and the Oxfordshire Growth Board about how much of Oxford’s unmet housing need should be met in South Oxfordshire.

The emerging Plan included a new community at Chalgrove, which was partly controlled by Homes England, as well as Green Belt sites at Culham and Berinsfield. It ignored sites adjacent to Oxford which were close to areas of employment and existing and proposed means of transport, but which sat in the Green Belt.

That all changed when Cllr Cotton lost control of the administration to his former deputy leader, Cllr Jane Murphy. Cllr Murphy’s team added extra strategic sites (South Oxfordshire Science Village, Northfields, Wheatleyand Bayswater Brook), allowing the authority to meet Oxford’s unmet need in full. However, the updated Plan, which required an additional Reg 19 phase did not remove the controversial sites at Culham and Chalgrove leading to some accusations that the council was allocating more homes than were needed.

Growth Funding and Ox-Cambs corridor

To complicate matters further, Oxfordshire had been given £215m in infrastructure funding to help deliver the new homes. The deal is dependent on all Oxfordshire authorities delivering their Local Plans according to an agreed timetable. Much was allocated to South Oxfordshire but would facilitate the delivery of homes in Vale of White Horse more widely as well.

In addition, the National Infrastructure Commission was pushing forward with plans for new Oxford-Cambridge connections including road and rail. By the end of 2018 a preferred route for the expressway had been announced, much of it in South Oxfordshire.

At the end of 2018, all authorities were technically well on track. However, they were not able to take their residents on the journey with them and South Oxfordshire slumped from being almost a one party Conservative state, to a rainbow coalition led by the Liberal Democrats and Greens with the Conservatives reduced from 33 to 9 councillors.

Following May’s elections, the new administration made up largely of new councillors with little local government experience, announced that they would conduct a review of the Local Plan. This review took place over the summer with various attempts by MHCLG and other local authorities in Oxfordshire to warn South Oxfordshire of the implications around loss of HIF funding and the potential collapse of the Oxfordshire Growth Deal itself, if they decided to withdraw their Plan. However, the new administration held firm and showed little sign of compromise with the South Oxfordshire Cabinet confirming on 3rd October that it would recommend the withdrawal of the Plan to Full Council.

Legal battle

Less than 24 hours in advance of the Full Council meeting due to take place on 10th October at which the fate of the Plan was to be determined, Robert Jenrick issued a letter to SODC requiring them not to make a decision on the Local Plan. The Twittersphere erupted.

At 2pm on the 10th SODC issued its legal response, questioning whether Jenrick was actually able to make such a direction. The meeting was still on.

At 5pm, an hour before the meeting, MHCLG issued a clarification. The hall was already full and overflowing and the 34  public speakers were ready to address the council.

At 6pm it was announced in front of several hundred  people that the council was not allowed to discuss the Plan. The mood rapidly soured and the room emptied while the councillors were forced to move on to other council business.

The aftermath

The unprecedented intervention stopped a vote most considered to be on a knife edge. This was just one of its effects. The extraordinary central intervention brought created sympathy and nurtured alliances between groups who had previously been pushing SODC to adopt a Plan.

In SODC itself the groupings hardened around their respective stances – the administration in favour of withdrawing the Plan, the Conservatives in favour of the Plan. Some of the Labour voices who were supportive of the Plan have indicated that they  are less than impressed that local democracy has been put aside in such a manner.

What’s next

MHCLG’s clarification letter assured the authority that the position was simply to allow time for the Government to review the situation, not to force the Examination of the Plan or to force SODC to adopt the Plan.

There is little further information available but we can assume that there will be intensive talks between SODC and MHCLG over the coming days and weeks to agree a way forward. These efforts will undoubtedly be hampered by the departure of Holly Jones from SODC, the officer responsible for drafting the Plan.

One thing is certain, this is going to run and run.

Watch this space.

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