If any area is well placed to show the way for the UK’s post-Brexit economic future, it is south Oxfordshire. As well as being on the doorstep of the world-famous university, the district boasts the cutting edge Culham science park, which is one of the world’s leading centres for research into nuclear fusion, the technology that promises virtually unlimited low carbon electricity. It is also, however, the setting for a very old-style English planning dispute, which is holding back growth plans both in the district itself and the wider county of Oxfordshire.
South Oxfordshire District Council's draft local plan was submitted for examination in March last year. But since last May’s local elections, which saw a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Greens take control at South Oxfordshire after campaigning against the previous Conservative administration’s draft local plan, the government and the district council have been in a stand-off on the issue.
Just 24 hours before members were due to hold a final vote on withdrawing the plan from examination last October, housing secretary Robert Jenrick issued a holding direction barring the council from taking any further steps. Then earlier this year, the secretary of state for housing ratcheted up the pressure on the local authority by announcing that he was minded to hand control of the upcoming examination process to Conservative-run Oxfordshire County Council.
The latest twist in the long-running saga over the South Oxfordshire local plan happened last week. Jenrick lifted the holding direction but told South Oxfordshire that it must ensure the plan is adopted by December, threatening to take "further intervention action" if this has not happened. Is Jenrick’s proposed December timetable a deliverable one? And does it show that the secretary of state’s threat to intervene was an empty one?
"This timescale is hugely ambitious and arguably unachievable," said Nigel Hawkey, a planning partner in consultancy Bidwells’ Oxford office. A date has yet to be set for the plan’s examination hearings to take place, which are likely to take a month to six weeks, but commentators believe they are unlikely to start before the end of April.
This next stage of the examination process therefore probably won’t be concluded until June, said David Bainbridge, Oxford-based planning director at consultancy Savills. Tim Burden, a director at planning consultancy Turley, said he cannot remember any plan passing from examination to adoption in six months, which would be required under the timetable set by Jenrick.
And that’s without taking into account potential disruption to public gatherings that would result from the coronavirus outbreak. "Hopefully we will be able to move forward as quickly as we can without being affected by the C-word," said Adrian Duffield, head of planning at South Oxfordshire Council.
Whether the plan can be processed in time is now largely in the hands of the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), said Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at local authority bidy the Planning Officers’ Society. A key factor here will be how much pressure the government puts on PINS to prioritise South Oxfordshire, she said. "I suspect there will be strong words to the inspectorate to take a pragmatic approach and get it out of the door at the other end."
The timing also depends on whether the individual inspectors take a high-level approach to running examinations or dig into the detail, Riddell added. Duffield said: "It (the timescale) is very tight but we will do our utmost to help the inspector to get things done in the timescale that he sets out."
Following the examination, observers expected a key potential issue to be whether any of the currently allocated sites remain in the plan when it is modified on the suggestion of the inspector. Dropping allocated strategic sites and replacing them with new ones could require an update of the plan’s sustainability appraisal, said Bainbridge. And that will involve "a lot of delay" because of the technical work and consultation that this would entail, he adds.
The risk that this will happen is heightened by the intensely controversial nature of many of South Oxfordshire’s proposed strategic allocation sites, said Hawkey: "The controversy about those sites shouldn’t be underestimated and the level of opposition that will be generated once the planning process starts moving," he added.
The fiercest passions locally are stoked by the proposed allocation at Chalgrove airfield, where Homes England is promoting a compulsory purchase order to help bring forward around 3,500 homes. The current occupant, ejector seat manufacturer Martin Baker, is digging in its heels against the allocation, while the parties that now control South Oxfordshire campaigned against the airfield’s redevelopment at last year’s local election.
An added problem is the increasingly out-of-date nature of the evidence base underpinning the plan, which includes a strategic housing market assessment published in April 2014. However Bainbridge believed that allowing South Oxfordshire to keep responsibility for taking forward the plan makes sense.
When the 2004 Planning Act was passed - the legislation that provides Jenrick with the powers to intervene in and take over the local plan process - counties still had structure plan responsibilities and employed large teams of planners. Now, commentators observed, though that is no longer the case. The point was also made by Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth to Planning in January, who expressed resource concerns if it had to take over the district council's plan.
And seconding officers from South Oxfordshire, who have the grassroots knowledge about the area, to the county council would have been fraught with governance difficulties, said Bainbridge. Such a move "strikes me as an absolute nightmare with officers reporting to officers at a different councils," he said.
According to Duffield, South Oxfordshire demonstrated to the MHCLG that it has a "clear understanding of what is required" to complete the local plan process. "We gave confidence that we know what we are doing," he added.
Burden believed that Jenrick stepped in partly because of Homes England’s interest at Chalgrove. Another factor was the potential risk that the wider Oxfordshire growth deal and Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) bid, which is collectively worth £443 million, could be capsized if South Oxfordshire’s plan was not adopted. Riddell said: "The bottom line for the government is that the government has invested millions of pounds into the area on the basis that these plans will get done as quick as possible."
Ultimately though, Jenrick’s decision not to press ahead with intervention shows that ministers remain cautious about going down this road, she said: "There is a real reluctance for secretaries of state to take ownership of this." The powers to intervene in local plan making have not been exercised in the three years since they were first unveiled by Jenrick’s last-but-one predecessor Sajid Javid, Riddell pointed out.
Noting that Jenrick will see the plan progress while South Oxfordshire retains control over the process, Burden said both sides in the stand-off have saved face for the time being. "Jenrick got the outcome he wanted without opening a whole can of worms," he said.
However, it still can’t be ruled out that South Oxfordshire’s administration will refuse to adopt the plan following its examination, or that the final document will be challenged in the courts via a judicial review. Which means there could be many more twists before the South Oxfordshire plan saga finally concludes.