Jenrick considering whether to approve South Oxfordshire plan himself, says MHCLG

The housing ministry has clarified that the secretary of state is considering whether to approve the troubled South Oxfordshire local plan himself after the council's chief executive wrote to the department to raise concerns about the long-emerging document being "placed on hold" by the minister's intervention.

South Oxfordshire District Council's offices. Image: South Oxfordshire District Council
South Oxfordshire District Council's offices. Image: South Oxfordshire District Council

South Oxfordshire councillors had been due to decide yesterday evening whether to abandon the current plan, which was submitted for examination in March by the council’s previous administration.

But the authority was forced to abandon last night's vote on whether to scrap the document in light of an extraordinary intervention by the secretary of state earlier this week.

After it was submitted in March, the document has been the subject of protracted debate since control of the council changed hands to a Lib Dem-led coalition after the May local elections.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick wrote to Lib Dem council leader Sue Cooper on Wednesday to issue a holding direction instructing the council "not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the plan".

The direction prompted a robust response from South Oxfordshire chief executive Mark Stone, who wrote to Jenrick yesterday (Thursday) to question whether it was within the secretary of state’s powers to issue a holding direction preventing a plan being withdrawn from examination. He asked the minister to clarify under which powers he had issued the direction. 

Stone instructed the government to respond to his concerns by no later than 3pm yesterday, either explaining the basis for the secretary of state’s actions or withdrawing the holding direction.

"The council remains committed to delivering a sound local plan and considers it of the utmost importance to uphold the vital principles of local democracy," he wrote. "It is in no one’s interest for the local plan to be placed on hold."

Emran Mian, director general of decentralisation and growth at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), issued a prompt reply advising that the holding direction had been issued while the secretary of state considered whether to call-in the council’s plan for his own approval.

The letter said "this was not an attempt to issue a ‘general’ holding direction but to allow time for the Secretary of State to consider whether to give a direction under s21(4) of the [Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004]".

Section 21(4) of the 2004 Act allows the secretary of state to direct that a development plan must be submitted to him for his approval instead of the council.

David Bainbridge, planning partner at Bidwells, told Planning he attended the South Oxfordshire meeting where the local plan vote was due to take place.

Bainbridge said more than 100 people were at the meeting when Stone announced there would be no discussion or vote on the local plan in light of the secretary of state's intervention.

Planning silk 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.

"The secretary of state is doing what he is fully entitled to do - which is flex his central government muscles. And something which he should frankly be doing a lot more of across southern England right now."

South Oxfordshire Council posted the following statement to its local plan examination webpage: "The secretary of state wrote to South Oxfordshire District Council on Wednesday 9 October and imposed a holding direction on the council that means we cannot take any step in connection with the adoption of our emerging Local Plan 2034.

"We responded to the SoS letter and had a reply from the director general, decentralisation and growth, Thursday 10 October. The response received made no changes to this holding direction.

"Further information will be provided as it becomes available."

The ongoing uncertainty over the future of the South Oxfordshire local plan has given rise to fears among neighbouring authorities that a decision to withdraw the plan could undermine a £215 million growth deal agreed with central government. The deal is reliant on all the councils' local plans having been submitted for examination by April this year.

Earlier this month, Vale of White Horse leader Emily Smith wrote to South Oxfordshire's leader. "Clearly the decision about your Local Plan is for your council to make, but I am increasingly concerned about possible unintended consequences for the Vale of White Horse District," she wrote.

Smith warned of a "very real and immediate risk that a decision of your council to withdraw your plan puts on the funding that both existing and planned development for both of our communities rely".

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