MHCLG Minister Robert Jenrick announced yesterday he is forcing South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) to adopt its Local Plan by December 2020 - or face the consequences. Nigel Hawkey, Planning Partner in Bidwells’ Oxford office, looks at the implications. 

The twist and turns of SODC’s tussle with Robert Jenrick have been playing out since May 2019 but the story has now entered a new and important phase. The Minister has issued a Direction under Section 27 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requiring SODC to progress the plan through examination and for senior council officers to report monthly to MHCLG officials on progress.

Forcing SODC to hold an examination on its Local Plan and secure its adoption by December 2020 sets a heroically ambitious timetable. Setting aside any political misgivings it may be unachievable, simply because the evidence base could now be out of date. It is nearly a year since the plan was originally submitted to government.

Jenrick has stepped back from using his powers for a more controversial move, namely to hand the plan making function over to Oxfordshire County Council. That would have been unprecedented and would have significantly raised the stakes with SODC, leading to legal challenge and possibly even guerrilla warfare. That decision, for the time being, has been put off. Nonetheless, there is a veiled threat in Jenrick’s letter that - if progress is not made - the County will still take over the role.

Stark reminder 

The letter also gives an interesting analysis of SODC’s performance against Local Plan intervention criteria (set out in the 2017 Housing White Paper). It includes a stark reminder that house prices in South Oxfordshire are among the least affordable in the country and that SODC would fall way behind other areas if it was permitted to re-write the existing draft plan, meaning adoption would be delayed until 2024.

This decision does give renewed impetus to the £433 million growth deal agreed between central government, SODC and its five Oxfordshire neighbours, who no doubt will be relieved that the infrastructure funding logjam may now be lifted. For those promoting sites in the region, this decision therefore offers greater certainty, particularly for well-designed and planned strategic development promoted through the now revitalised local plan process.

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