Why a county council is poised to take over production of a district's local plan

Ministers have warned an Oxfordshire district council considering ditching its long-emerging development plan that it may ask the county council to intervene. Obervers believe some form of intervention is likely, with the county saying it is willing to step in, despite resource concerns.

South Oxfordshire Council: minister issues local plan intervention threat
South Oxfordshire Council: minister issues local plan intervention threat

Earlier this month, housing secretary Robert Jenrick delivered South Oxfordshire District Council an ultimatum – explain by the end of January why it has failed to adopt its local plan or face government intervention. In a letter to the authority, Jenrick said he is considering passing responsibility for the document’s preparation to Oxfordshire County Council. The letter said that section 27A of and schedule A1 to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 allows the secretary of state to invite a county council to "prepare or revise" a development plan if he or she "thinks that a lower-tier planning authority are failing or omitting to do anything it is necessary for them to do in connection with the preparation, revision or adoption" of that document.

Jenrick’s warning is the latest episode in a battle that has been raging since a coalition of Liberal Democrats, Greens and independents ousted the previous Conservative regime in last May’s local elections. The new leadership was elected on a platform of opposition to the local plan, which was submitted for examination in March last year, due to its level of housing growth.

In October, just before members were due to vote on whether to abandon the plan, Jenrick issued a holding direction preventing the council from making any decision on the plan while he considered his next move.

Experts believe that the threat to remove plan responsibilities from South Oxfordshire is partly motivated by the importance of a £215 million housing growth deal agreed between central government and the six Oxfordshire councils. Under the terms of the deal, all local plans in the county were to be submitted by April 2019. Krystian Groom, associate director at consultancy Built Environment Communications Group (BECG), said: "So much money has been ploughed into the growth deal that the government can’t afford to sit on its hands over this."

Ian Hudspeth, Conservative leader of the county council said the council has not yet discussed taking over the plan with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but it stands ready to do so if necessary. He said: "If the secretary of state asked us to come forward, we would have to establish exactly what the government’s intentions are. We would work with the department and South Oxfordshire to make sure the plan goes through."

However, Hudspeth said that even if his authority was tasked only with progressing the existing plan submitted for examination by the previous South Oxfordshire regime, "there would be resource issues". He said: "We don’t produce local plans but like any county council our transport teams work closely with planning teams on the delivery of housing. But although there is a lot of knowledge there, we would require specific additional expertise."

South Oxfordshire is remaining tight-lipped on its intentions, saying only that it is "considering its options and will be providing a response in due course by the end of the month as requested". David Bainbridge, planning director at consultancy Savills, said it will be politically difficult for the authority to fend off intervention. He says: "The only thing they could do would be to give an undertaking in writing that they will not seek to withdraw the plan. But in that scenario, the council leadership would have to gain support from backbench councillors who were elected on a mandate that they would tear up the local plan, which would be a big ask."

Planning barrister Christopher Young QC, of No5 Chambers, said the large majority won by the Conservatives at the general election makes it more likely that the government will follow through on its threat to intervene. He said: "There have been similar threats before, but this time the government is no longer at the mercy of its backbench MPs, which have in the past helped stop intervention."

If intervention happens, it will be the first time a council has its power to prepare its development own plan removed and the first time the responsibility will be handed to a county council. However, planning consultant Catriona Riddell, is unsure that the case will set a precedent. "I think it is an extreme example as there is so much money tied up with the local plan, so there is a lot at stake if the plan is not delivered. I’m not sure that there will be many other places where the same level of risk is involved."

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