The decision by Robert Jenrick to approve plans for the redevelopment of a campus belonging to Oxford Brookes University is the minister's second consent this week for a major housing scheme on green belt and has been described by a planning barrister as potentially the biggest release of green belt land on a site not approved by a local plan inspector.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government yesterday published a decision by Robert Jenrick granting approval for the redevelopment of a campus belonging to Oxford Brookes University.
Oxford Brookes had applied for permission for 500 dwellings, including 173 affordable dwellings, and associated green infrastructure including a play area, bowling green and a cricket pitch on a 21.5 ha site located approximately 3.5km east of Oxford.
To make way for the new homes, the university has proposed demolishing the existing Wheatley campus buildings including its centrepiece, a 12-storey tower.
The university had appealed against a decision by South Oxfordshire council to refuse the application in December 2018. The appeal was subsequently recovered by the secretary of state because it involved significant development in the green belt.
Jenrick agreed with the recommendation from his inspector Dominic Young that the campus buildings, together with associated sports pitches and circulation areas, can be considered previously developed land, meaning that principle green belt objections related to only 14 per cent of the site.
Young, who recommended approval for the appeal, said the out of date status of South Oxfordshire’s local plan means that the application could be approved under the National Planning Policy Framework's presumption in favour of sustainable development in paragraph 11(d), otherwise known as its ‘tilted balance’ provision.
However Jenrick agreed with the inspector that there was no need to trigger this provision because the scheme met the "very exceptional circumstances" required to justify development in the green belt.
These include its contribution to addressing an "acute" need for affordable housing in South Oxfordshire even though the council has identified the required five years of housing land supply.
He also cited the "significant" benefit resulting from the removal of the 12-storey tower on the openness of the wider South Oxfordshire green belt.
Both of these factors carried "very substantial" weight in favour of the scheme, according to Jenrick’s letter.
He also judged that "significant" weight should be given to the reinvestment of the proceeds arising from the sale of the land by Oxford Brookes into the education sector.
The site is allocated for development in South Oxfordshire’s long-emerging local plan, although Young judged that this factor should only attract only limited weight given that the blueprint has yet to proceed to public examination.
But the inspector noted that the site’s allocation for a development is supported by a "significant amount" of work in evidence base for the emerging plan.
A spokesman for South Oxfordshire Council, said: “We’re disappointed in the secretary of state’s decision, which overturns the decision of a committee made up of democratically locally elected South Oxfordshire representatives.”
The decision comes just days after Jenrick’s approval for a school and 325 dwellings on green belt in Stockport, Manchester, which was reported by Planning yesterday.
Christopher Young QC, a planning barrister at No 5 chambers who acted for Oxford Brookes University in yesterday's appeal, said the South Oxfordshire decision could be the largest housing proposal allowed in the green belt on appeal for a site that has not been approved by a local plan inspector.
He added: "Both cases involve councils which have simply failed to progress an up-to-date local plan - this gives us a good indication of the secretary of state’s present thinking."
South Oxfordshire has been the arena for a long-running standoff between the Tory secretary of state and the council’s Lib Dem-led administration, which was elected last year, over the slow progress of its troubled local plan.
Jenrick told South Oxfordshire last month that it must ensure that its local plan is adopted by December, threatening to take "further intervention action" if this has not happened.