South Oxfordshire requests 'flexibility' from government on determination targets and housing land supply

An Oxfordshire council has written to the housing secretary asking for "flexibility" in meeting both statutory planning application determination targets and the five year housing land supply requirement during the coronavirus pandemic.

South Oxfordshire Council: authority seeks planning 'flexibility' during pandemic
South Oxfordshire Council: authority seeks planning 'flexibility' during pandemic

In March, South Oxfordshire District Council was ordered by the housing secretary Robert Jenrick to continue the examination of its troubled draft local plan and to adopt the document by December this year.

The council's administration, elected in May last year after opposing policies in the emerging plan, had been set to withdraw the plan from examination last autumn before Jenrick imposed a temporary order blocking the move.

This week, the authority wrote to Jenrick seeking "flexibility" in meeting statutory planning requirements because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the letter, the council's Lib Dem leader, Sue Cooper said its purpose was to draw "attention to issues that are facing us in administering the planning system during the coronavirus pandemic".

Cooper said that many planning applications are already being determined by officer delegation, but she added that the authority's planning department "is currently under pressure as we have had to redeploy staff to our coronavirus Community Support Hub, working with county, NHS and police partners".

"It would not be a surprise if our excellent record on meeting determination target slips while we have fewer staff available in our planning and legal teams," she said.

Cooper, said that social distancing restrictions make it "hard, if not impossible, for site visits to take place", adding that "technology enabled committee meetings are not yet proven to be able to support genuine public engagement".

She added: "We must be careful not to undermine confidence in local democracy and our planning system, by weakening or reducing public, or indeed councillor, participation in order to meet determination target dates on planning applications."

Cooper went on to say that the council had "some potentially contentious applications coming up which will require input from many statutory consultees, and with all consultees under resource pressure and communities understandably focused on the Covid response, I worry that the pressure to meet targets will significantly reduce our ability to get such developments right and open the council up to challenge from developers and residents alike".

Where communities "are asking for a temporary pause in our processing of some planning applications", the council should be "able to show trust and compassion by agreeing to that", she added.

The letter asked Jenrick to consider suspending statutory planning application determination targets and to "adjust the five year housing land supply requirements during the period of the Covid crisis".

The letter said: "Many builders in this area have stopped or adjusted work on the larger housing sites so it will be more difficult to keep up with the currently required level of delivery to achieve a five year land supply against our submitted local plan."

Cooper suggested that the government could review the situation on a three-month rolling basis.

The letter concluded: "By allowing this flexibility, whilst enabling the council and the community to focus on protecting lives as part of the emergency relief effort, you would be making it easier for local democratic input into planning decisions to continue without risking poor development decisions and legal challenges (with associated costs) arising from councils doing what is right for our residents, businesses and the NHS and would be doing so safe in the knowledge that over recent years housing delivery has been at all-time highs within our district."

The letter does not mention the new local plan timescale imposed on the council by Jenrick earlier this year.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been approached for comment but had yet to respond by the time of publication.

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