Housing secretary tells south Oxfordshire council to push ahead with local plan

The housing secretary has stepped in to force an Oxfordshire authority to bring forward its local plan in a move seen as vital to saving the government’s 100,000-home Oxfordshire housing deal.

Robert Jenrick

Robert Jenrick wrote to council leader Sue Cooper yesterday telling her that he was using his powers under the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act to direct the council to take its current draft plan through to examination and adoption, after the council voted to withdraw it in October.

Jenrick put a holding direction on the plan after the decision in October while he considered whether or not to intervene.

The draft plan, a key plank of a wider Oxfordshire ambition to build 100,000 homes by 2031, envisages construction of 1,270 homes a year, far above the amount indicated by the government’s “standard method” of calculating housing need.

The decision by south Oxfordshire council to withdraw the controversial draft plan came after local elections last May in which the Conservative leadership that had propelled the plan was voted out, leaving a Liberal Democrat/Green coalition in charge. Both parties had campaigned against the plan in advance of the election.

Funding of £215m for the whole county was conditional on all Oxfordshire authorities adopting plans which enabled the delivery of the overall 100,000 figure.

In his letter to Cooper, Jenrick said: “Your council is failing to do certain things that it must do in connection with the preparation and adoption of the plan…

“Having considered all of the above, in my judgment, there is a clear case for me to take local plan intervention action.”

He formally directed the council to progress the plan through examination and adoption by December 2020, and report monthly to the department on how it was doing. However, he decided not to hand responsibility for forming the plan to a neighbouring authority or Oxfordshire county council, as had been speculated.

He said: “I will continue to closely monitor your plan-making progress. Should a significant delay occur, should you fail to comply with the directions in this letter without a good reason or should the plan fail at examination, I will consider taking further intervention action to ensure that an up-to-date local plan is in place in south Oxfordshire.”

He also added that he expected monthly updates on how south Oxfordshire will ensure a sufficient supply of homes “in line with national policy”, including meeting the need for homes from neighbouring authorities where they do not have capacity.

In response, the council chief executive Mark Stone wrote back to the housing ministry today offering to discuss with officials how the authority will meet the terms of the statutory direction. He also added that he will set up a “ring-fenced team” to address the council’s concerns with the plan regarding climate change, regeneration and housing delivery.

The news comes ahead of a south Oxfordshire council cabinet meeting due to discuss the way forward for the plan. Last week Cooper argued in advance of the meeting that handing the council’s plan-making powers to another authority “would take the ability to influence the local plan out of the hands of those who were elected to do just that”.

She said: “It would mean putting it in the hands of a council that has no democratic mandate to make local plans in south Oxfordshire, nor any experience of making this type of plan.”