The examination of South Oxfordshire District Council's local plan is currently on hold after the secretary of state issued a holding direction last October which bars the council from taking any steps in relation to the plan.
The direction was issued just 24 hours after South Oxfordshire was due to hold a final vote on the plan’s withdrawal.
Oxfordshire County Council has indicated it would be willing to prepare the plan on South Oxfordshire’s behalf, after the government said it was minded to hand control of the process to the upper-tier authority.
Last week, South Oxfordshire officers recommended to cabinet members that the authority should allow its plan examination to proceed. The recommendation was due to be considered at a meeting of the council's cabinet tomorrow (Thursday 5 March).
But in a letter to the council’s leader, Sue Cooper, this week, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, said he was directing the council to allow the plan’s examination to continue and to adopt the plan by December.
Jenrick said the council "is failing to do certain things that it must do in connection [with] the preparation and adoption of the plan". Namely, he added, this was "the requirement to set out the strategic policies to address the priorities for the development and use of land in your area … and to submit every development plan document for independent examination".
Outlining his grounds for directing the council to progress and adopt the plan, Jenrick noted that the council has a target for adopting a new local plan by June 2024 if the current one is withdrawn.
He said that directing the council "to progress their plan and adopt it by December 2020 could accelerate plan production by three years and six months".
Jenrick also said that, "assuming South Oxfordshire withdraw the plan and meet their target for adopting a new local plan in June 2024, based on current local development schemes, only one council in England would have an older local plan than South Oxfordshire".
Along with his direction to progress and adopt the plan, the minister lifted his October holding direction with immediate effect.
The letter concluded: "I will continue to closely monitor your plan-making progress.
"Should a significant delay occur, should you fail to comply with the directions in this letter without a good reason or should the plan fail at examination, I will consider taking further intervention action to ensure that an up-to-date local plan is in place in South Oxfordshire."
The future of South Oxfordshire’s plan has been in the balance 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 a statement from the council, Cooper, a Lib Dem, said: "It’s disappointing the secretary of state has felt it necessary to intervene, however the council remains committed to working constructively with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the secretary of state as well as engaging productively with our partnerships across Oxfordshire."
The statement said the cabinet meeting will go ahead tomorrow as scheduled, but councillors cannot consider alternative options for the plan’s future set out in the officer’s report due to the secretary of state’s direction.
Nigel Hawkey, a planning partner in consultancy Bidwells' Oxford office, said: "This is a decisive move, but seeking to adopt the plan by December 2020 is a heroically ambitious timetable. For example, how much of the technical evidence base is up to date, given the significant time lag of nearly a year since the draft plan’s submission?
"Notably, Jenrick has chosen not to hand the plan over to the county; this would have been an unprecedented move into uncharted waters, significantly raising the stakes potentially leading to legal challenge and guerrilla warfare."
Hawkey went on to say that the move would help unlock the £433 million of promised Growth Deal and Housing Infrastructure Fund money from central government that had been held up by the lack of progress on the plan.
He added: "No doubt South Oxfordshire Council’s neighbours will be relieved that the logjam may now be lifted."