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The Examination into the soundness of the South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2011-2034 begins this week. It is listed to run for four weeks and will be held virtually on MS Teams. It will be the first Local Plan examination to be run in this way, following PINS’ announcement on 28th May 2020 that it had been scaling up the work to implement virtual events, with the aim of making virtual events the “standard option” for the majority of events in future.

Robert Walton QC is representing the Council at the Examination.

The Plan is the last piece in the jigsaw in terms of the adoption of up to date Plans at City and District Level across Oxfordshire (the most recent Plan to be adopted being the Oxford City Plan 2036, adopted on 8th June 2020). Its place at the front of the virtual queue has no doubt been influenced by the Secretary of State’s desire to see the Plan adopted as soon as possible. The Secretary of State intervened in the plan-making process* back in October last year when it looked like the Council’s new administration was going to resolve to withdraw the Plan from Examination. The Secretary of State issued a holding direction preventing the Council from taking any step in connection with the adoption of the Plan. That direction remained in place until March this year, when the Secretary of State directed the Council to progress the Plan through examination and adoption by December this year, and to report monthly to his officials on the progress of the Plan.

The Plan is to be examined by Inspector Jonathan Bore, who held the examination into the Oxford City Plan. The Inspector has already concluded that the Council has complied with the duty to co-operate; and he will not be holding any sessions in relation to legal compliance.

From the Inspector’s agenda key issues will be the Council’s housing requirement, including the extent the Plan proposes to meet Oxford’s unmet needs and the justification for extensive Green Belt release.

The Plan’s housing requirement totals some 23,350 homes over the plan period, of which just under 5,000 are required to meet Oxford’s unmet needs.

With regard to its own needs, the Council is proposing a requirement of 775 dpa. This compares to 627dpa under the standard methodology**. The Council is seeking to justify this uplift in part by reference to the Oxfordshire Growth deal which proposes 100,000 new homes across Oxfordshire to 2031 and which secures £60m for affordable housing and £150m for infrastructure improvements.

With regard to Oxford’s need the Plan proposes to meet that need on sites close to the City. This will necessitate the release of three Green Belt sites: land at Grenoble Road (3,000 units and about 10ha of employment land); land at Northfield (1,800 units); and land at Bayswater Brook (1,100 units).

The Plan also proposes further Green Belt release at Culham Science centre (3,500 units plus at least an increase of 7 ha of employment land) and Berinsfield (1,700 units and c.5 ha of employment land). The Plan also proposes 3,000 units at Chalgrove Airfield, a site being promoted by Homes England.

*The February 2017 Housing White Paper set out that the Government would prioritise intervention where:

  • the least progress in plan-making had been made
  • policies in plans had not been kept up to date
  • there was higher housing pressure; and
  • intervention would have the greatest impact in accelerating Local Plan production.

In November 2017 the then Secretary of State wrote to 15 authorities who had not yet adopted a 2004-Act Local Plan asking to hear about any exceptional circumstances justifying the failure to produce a plan, and any measures being taken to accelerate plan publication.

In early 2019 the Secretary of State issued directions to two of those local authorities on preparations for their Local Plans, finding, in view of the failure to get a local plan in place, that the requirements of s27(1) of the 2004 Act for intervention had been met. One authority, which had made the least progress of the original 15, was directed to publish an action plan, to be verified by independent planning experts, and report to the Ministry monthly on progress. A final opportunity was offered to “demonstrate a clear path” towards the delivery of the local plan, with an indication that in the event of failure to comply or the failure of the draft at Examination, the Secretary of State was “minded” to take over the preparation of the plan.

To date, the Secretary of State has still not taken the final step over the line to intervene by way of preparing the Local Plan document themselves.

**Para 2a-010 of the Housing and economic needs assessment guidance in the NPPG sets out when it might be appropriate to plan for a higher housing need figure than the standard method indicates. Circumstances will include (but are not limited to) situations where increases in housing need are likely to increase past trends due to:

  • Growth strategies for the area that are likely to be deliverable (eg where funding is in place to promote and facilitate additional growth)
  • Strategic infrastructure improvements that are likely to drive an increase in the homes needed locally, or
  • An authority agreeing to take on unmet need from neighbouring authorities, as set out in a statement of common ground.

Kate Olley and Robert Walton QC

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