How we did it: Accommodating a city's housing overspill

How an Oxfordshire district became the first in the county to help Oxford with unmet need. By Mark Wilding.

West Oxfordshire's planning team (left to right): housing enabling manager Ffyona MacEwan, planning policy and implementation officer Andrew Thomson, Chris Hargraves, planning officer Claire Bromley
West Oxfordshire's planning team (left to right): housing enabling manager Ffyona MacEwan, planning policy and implementation officer Andrew Thomson, Chris Hargraves, planning officer Claire Bromley

Project: West Oxfordshire local plan

Organisations involved: West Oxfordshire District Council, Oxfordshire Growth Board

In September, councillors at West Oxfordshire District Council adopted a local plan for the district, the first plan in the county to be adopted that provides for unmet housing need arising from the city of Oxford. The council has come a long way since an initial examination hearing in 2015 highlighted that the authority should boost its housing numbers to cater for Oxford’s needs as well as its own.

Planning policy manager Chris Hargraves says of the examination hearings in late 2015: "We had an awkward few days of inquiry time." The council found itself defending a housing target much lower than the other Oxfordshire authorities felt was necessary. A strategic housing market assessment (SHMA) carried out in 2014 suggested a need for 13,200 homes in west Oxfordshire and that 15,000 homes across the county would need to be found outside the city council’s boundaries to provide for the city’s unmet housing need.

At that point, the district had proposed a total housing target of only 10,500 – well below even its own assessed need. "The submitted plan does not identify or seek to address any unmet needs of Oxford city," noted the inspector in an interim report. So in January 2016, planning officers got to work on a new plan for the district. To be found sound, it would need to identify sufficient sites to meet the district’s own housing requirement, but also a fair share of Oxford’s unmet need. That meant working with neighbouring authorities to negotiate an acceptable figure.

Work to apportion Oxford’s housing overspill was overseen by the Oxfordshire Growth Board, a joint committee of the county’s six local authorities. The growth board managed production of evidence, such as a spatial options assessment and a green belt study, to inform negotiations. In September 2016, all the authorities bar South Oxfordshire District Council signed a memorandum of understanding that apportioned each council a share of the 15,000 homes. Hargraves says the growth board was crucial. "Without it, agreeing that apportionment of unmet need would have been much harder," he says. The agreement saw West Oxfordshire allocated an additional 2,750 homes.

Adding this to the SHMA’s estimate of its own housing need produced a total of 15,950 – more than 50 per cent higher than the target in the previous local plan. Jeff Haine, the district’s cabinet member for strategic housing and development, says councillors understood the need for this ambitious figure. "We were all aware we needed to have a local plan in place," he adds. "We were losing umpteen applications where we’d refuse them, they’d go to appeal and the inspector would overturn our decision. Councillors were keen to get our local plan approved and in place to stop speculative applications."

With the principle of growth agreed, the district still had to decide where these extra homes could be accommodated. A spatial options assessment produced for the growth board by consultancy LUC informed this work. It identified 36 sites around the county that could help to meet Oxford’s overspill. The council carried out further site assessments on the six options within its borders and identified two locations close to the village of Eynsham – 2,200 homes at Cotswold Garden Village, a new settlement to be developed to the north of the village, and a 1,000-home urban extension to the west of the village.

The work identified that the benefit of these locations would be their close proximity to Oxford and existing transport links. Officers then had to secure approval for the strategy from councillors as well as the public. "The biggest challenge has been trying to achieve buy-in for the level of growth identified," says Hargraves. Workshops for councillors and consultation with the public focused on the benefits of planning positively for more housing. "It’s not all doom and gloom," adds Hargraves. "You might be able to deliver a link road or two additional schools. We had to show there are benefits to growth."

The council sought views on the new housing figure as part of a main modifications consultation started in November 2016 and the plan was submitted for examination the following March. Recommendations from the inspector necessitated further modifications, but the plan was found sound in August this year. In September, councillors voted in favour of adoption.

Work now begins in earnest to meet the council’s housing targets. "That is a big challenge," says Haine. The plan sets out a staggered approach to delivery, meaning more homes per year are expected to be delivered in the later years of the plan. "There’s a lot of permissions needed for these sites and that doesn’t happen overnight," adds Haine. There are, however, signs of progress. Grosvenor, the developer of the Cotswold Garden Village project, says it plans to submit outline plans next year and hopes to complete the first homes by 2021.

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