Inspector backs South Oxfordshire plan's 'justified' housing target and green belt releases

The inspector examining the troubled South Oxfordshire local plan has concluded that it is "justified" in setting a homes target at a higher level than would arise from the standard housing need method, its spatial strategy is "sound" and there are "no reasonable alternatives" to the document's proposed releases of green belt land.

South Oxfordshire Council: Inspector quick to back delayed local plan
South Oxfordshire Council: Inspector quick to back delayed local plan

South Oxfordshire District Council's draft local plan was submitted for examination in March last year, but following the a change in administration at the May 2019 local elections, the government and the authority have been in a stand-off on the issue.

The local elections saw a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Greens take control at South Oxfordshire after campaigning against the previous Conservative administration's draft local plan.

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.

In March, Jenrick lifted the direction but told South Oxfordshire that it must ensure the plan is adopted by December, threatening to take "further intervention action" if this had not happened. Examination hearings into the emerging plan began in July and ended in early August.

Now, inspector Jonathan Bore has published his "preliminary conclusions and post-hearings advice" on the draft plan, backing the document's total housing requirement of 22,775 homes over the plan period to 2034.

This consists of 17,825 homes for the South Oxfordshire Council area at a rate of 775 dwellings per annum, and an additional 4,950 homes to meet Oxford City's unmet housing needs - figures which Bore said were "higher than would arise from the standard method, but there are a number of strong reasons why this should be so".

These included that a lower housing requirement "would not support the national objective to boost the supply of housing" and "would fail to address housing affordability issues, affordable housing need and the housing impediments to the successful economic growth of the area".

He added that a lower target would be "inconsistent with the range of other adopted plans in Oxfordshire, would not satisfactorily address Oxford City's unmet housing needs, and would ignore the evidence of recent years that the district is capable of delivering housing at a higher level".

Bore also backed all of the plan's proposed strategic land allocations, including several green belt sites, saying: "My preliminary conclusion is that exceptional circumstances exist for the release from the green belt of all the relevant site allocations.

"The plan seeks to meet overall housing need in the right places through a logical and evidence-based spatial strategy that promotes sustainable development patterns. The allocations are well chosen and do not represent unrestricted sprawl; they constitute planned growth."

The inspector added that there were "no reasonable alternatives to the approach taken in the plan to the alteration of the green belt".

Alternatives "would locate development in the wrong places, resulting in longer journeys, higher costs, additional pollution, and additional pressure on existing settlements and their facilities; they would promote much less sustainable development patterns", Bore concluded.

Proposed site allocations outside of the green belt identified in the plan include the Chalgrove Airfield allocation. In June, government housing agency Homes England submitted an outline planning application for up to 3,000 homes on the former airfield.

Bore said this "provides an important opportunity to deliver a substantial part of the district's housing needs on a largely previously-developed site without landscape significance outside the green belt".

He advised that his "preliminary conclusion is that the spatial strategy is logical, justified on the evidence, integrated and sound".

The inspector has now asked the council to work with him to agree any main modifications to the draft plan ahead of a consultation and sustainability appraisal.

David Bainbridge, Oxford-based planning director at consultancy Savills, said: "The planning inspector and the council are to be commended for making efficient progress on examination into the plan thus far.

"The inspector's preliminary conclusions and post-hearings advice is light-touch on changes being supportive of the strategy and sites subject to main modifications. The pace of progress and relatively few changes to the plan could be a sign of things to come under the new Planning White Paper."

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