I hardly know where to begin, but I should update you all as regards the hideous Local Plan situation because, to pinch the phrase used by another campaign group, it has more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie plot. If you are reasonably up to date you can jump to point 4) onwards.
1. As you know, the Local Plan was submitted by South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) to the Secretary of State at the end of March. Two inspectors were appointed but did not start work immediately principally because they were also examining the Oxford CITY Local Plan but also because they had been advised that the new Lib Dem/Green administration of SODC (following the Local Elections in May) were bringing the matter of the Local Plan back to discussion.
2. If you remember my last missive, meetings of SODC Scrutiny, Cabinet, and Full Council were held in July, at which Save Culham Green Belt spoke urging the Council to withdraw the Plan and start afresh. At this point inspectors had not started examining the SODC Local Plan. Full Council instead voted to take a ‘sensible pause’ and ask the Council’s planning officers to hold discussions with various bodies — Oxford County Council, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) etc — recognising that Didcot needs some upgraded road infrastructure that a Government grant is offering to part-fund.
3. In the meantime the Inspectors have now begun examination of the SODC Local Plan and their three lengthy initial sets of questions to the Council can be found on the SODC website here. They have raised significant questions about the housing numbers, the spatial strategy and justification for releasing Green Belt away from urban centres and questioned the local level ‘exceptional circumstances’ for the Culham site (and others). They are clearly querying similar parts of the plan to us.
4. On 1st October the Local Plan was brought before SODC’s Scrutiny Committee (of which our councillor, Sam Casey-Rerhaye, is a member). A motion there recommending Cabinet keep the Local Plan and follow through with the Inspection was rejected, despite planning policy officers again recommending this course. The matter went before SODC Cabinet meeting of 3rd October. Again SCGB were well represented and an excellent motion was passed by a unanimous Cabinet to make a recommendation to Full Council that the Local Plan be withdrawn due to the excessive over-supply of homes, concerns about site-selection and its lack of response to the Climate Emergency and that work should commence as soon as practicable on a new ambitious plan suitable for the district’s economic, social and environmental needs. The full motion can be found under the news section of SODC’s website. http://www.southoxon.gov.uk/news
5. This motion was due to be debated and voted on by Full Council on Thursday, 10th October, where if passed, it would have been binding upon the Council. No fewer than 34 speakers had registered and prepared speeches, including three people from Culham. Some of the speakers were from groups wanting the Local Plan to proceed unchanged, largely because they want the Housing Infrastructure Fund money (HIF) Oxford County Council has been promised by Central Government (£218 million). SODC has also been under pressure from neighbouring Councils concerned about losing the HIF money, despite SODC not being party to the contract for the HIF money, and about the danger of speculative development. As SODC’s Cabinet said, however, speculators will always speculate – that’s what speculators do and the HIF bid, whilst relating to SODC’s Local Plan, should not be an over-riding issue, especially when a Climate Emergency has been declared. All 34 speakers and all 35 locally elected councillors were, however, DENIED THE CHANCE to speak or debate the Local Plan due to an 11th hour intervention by the new Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, MP (appointed by PM, Boris Johnson), who wrote to the leader of SODC just the day before, directing the Council ‘not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan’ whilst he considered whether to give a ‘direction’ under section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Despite efforts by the Council’s chief executive and legal team to challenge the direction and its lawfulness, the holding direction was not removed. After taking our seats and sitting through a standard security preamble the Chief Executive announced that due to the Secretary of State’s direction Council could not hear representations or debate and vote on the Local Plan motion and the whole agenda item was silenced. There was outrage from the hundred or so members of the public who had arrived at the meeting in Crowmarsh Gifford. Speakers were denied their democratic right. Our elected councillors were denied their democratic right.
6. The Secretary of State is now ‘considering whether to give a ‘direction … for the Plan (or any part of it) to be submitted to him for his approval instead of Council’. This is called ‘calling in’. Planning barrister Christopher Young QC of No. 5 Chambers said: “this is an extraordinary decision by the Secretary of State. But we live in extraordinary times. The South Oxfordshire saga is better than any soap opera”. We are not aware of any other council that has been prevented exercising their democratic right in this way and I have written to Jenrick stating our objection.
In my letter I state: South Oxfordshire District Council already has a robust Local Plan to 2027 and, moreover, has a very healthy 7.1 year Land Supply. The draft emerging Local Plan 2034 which is currently with the Inspectorate is a highly controversial plan drawn up under the previous administration and includes a vastly exaggerated housing supply, calculated not by the Standard Method but under the outdated SHMA, and includes no less than six strategic sites in Green Belt. At the local elections in May the constituents of South Oxfordshire made clear their disgust at the plan and it was on the basis of electoral promises to do something about the local plan that the current administration were elected. They have been holding conversations via the Chief Executive with DHCLG and the Cabinet, after careful Scrutiny and soul-searching, have made the recommendation to Council that the plan be withdrawn. They recognise the Climate Emergency and wish to start a new plan which does not contravene the Climate Emergency Act and which will be found sound at Examination.
We have been repeatedly told by the Department that the Local Plan is a matter for the Local Authorities. Yet now you try and step in and in a quite outrageous manner attempt to hamper the locally elected councillors making a decision. You are standing in the path of democracy by your unwelcome intervention and not allowing SODC to produce a Local Plan which respects the economic, social and ENVIRONMENTAL needs of the district.
Do you even know South Oxfordshire? It is clear that Central Government are flexing their muscles and showing how they are prepared to concrete over Oxfordshire generally in the service of the endless fairy tale of economic growth, as whatever expense to the environment, despite the Government’s manifesto to leave the planet in a better state than they inherited.
Please urgently reconsider this intervention and retract your ruling and allow local democracy to take its course.
I have also written to our local MP, John Howell and on 12 October had this quite shocking response. It is clear we cannot expect any help from him:
There has been no infringement of democracy. First, all the Secretary of State has said is that he wants more time to discuss with SODC whether he should call-in the Plan in whole or in part. If he does so, it will go the Planning Inspectorate for examination. This is the proper place for the issue of the Green Belt to be decided and where, as I continue to believe, the issue of too much building on the Green Belt can be examined. Second, how is it democratic for SODC to take action that undermines and seeks to nullify the democratic opinions of Oxford City Council (Labour controlled), Oxfordshire County Council (Conservative controlled) and the Vale of the White Horse (Liberal-Democrat controlled) with regard to infrastructure. The representations from these councils have weighed significantly with the Secretary of State. Thirdly, it is precisely to avert situations where a group of new councillors, who have very little experience of planning and who seek to undermine totally the interests of the wider community, take actions that are incredible, that the Secretary of State has these powers. All he has done is to obtain a little more time for discussions – whatever the Liberal-Democrats and Greens may say. Lastly, I understand that a prominent Liberal-Democrat turned up at Culham and said that they were not interested in the high value, high income jobs that Culham was seeking to create and that they did not care whether the companies came here or not. I find that view absolutely appalling and contrary to the interests of the young people Culham is training in its new apprenticeship centre and against their democratic rights too. The Secretary of State has made a sensible use of his powers.
John Howell OBE MP ACIArb FSA
Member of Parliament for the Henley Constituency
I would be delighted and grateful if anyone else in his constituency (you must include your address) feels able to write to John Howell: email@example.com
And also, particularly, the Secretary of State. If you are contacting the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government please use the contact form on the MHCLG website:
The link for this is https://forms.communities.gov.uk/
Also: Twitter: @RobertJenrick / Facebook: RobertJenrickNewark)
It is impossible to guess what will happens next. We will attempt to keep you updated. In the meantime you can keep checking on SODC’s website. All the letters to and from Central Government are there for all to read: http://www.southoxon.gov.uk/services-and-advice/planning-and-building/planning-policy/local-plan-2034
Save Culham Green Belt