The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) to say that he wants more time to discuss the emerging Local Plan with the council and whether he should call it in either in whole or in part. Until then, nothing further can be done to withdraw the Plan or otherwise take it forward. If the Secretary of State does decide to call it in, I understand that it will go to the Planning Inspectorate for examination. This is the proper place where issues can be raised such as those of building on the Green Belt, which I too have been concerned about, and where the issue of housing numbers can be examined.
I have always expressed concerns with this emerging Local Plan. It was actually me who helped establish that the new method of assessing housing need should be derived from Office for National Statistics (ONS) numbers rather than from the previous Strategic Housing Market Assessments. This knocked about 1/3rd off the Oxfordshire total. It was then perfectly legitimate for councils to decide how many extra houses to plan for to get access to infrastructure funding. Lack of infrastructure alongside new housing is a major concern of residents.
One of the key reasons that the Secretary of State has taken this action is to allow more time. Local councils have been working together over several years to secure infrastructure funding for Oxfordshire. Other local councils have made strong representations to the Secretary of State concerning the risk to the shared funding that the government makes available, to which all councils (including SODC) had signed up. If lost this would undermine other Local Plans which have already been through due process and have been democratically adopted in their own areas.
I know that the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government will continue to work with SODC. I understand that it had become apparent that the new councillors, with little previous experience of planning, needed more time to assess their own ideas in relation to the interests of the wider community and to ensure that decisions taken will stand up. It is precisely for these reasons that the Secretary of State has these powers. All he has done is to obtain a little more time for discussions.
The Local Plan has been in debate for too long and one of my greatest concerns is that we will simply end up with a current plan that is considered in planning terms to be out of date. This would give developers the upper hand and is not something that I want to see for the District.
If it was a pledge of the current administration at the time of the local elections to unravel the Local Plan, due diligence should have been done then to establish that it was actually deliverable. Issues which were raised at the time include the following. The percentage of South Oxfordshire which is already built on was raised as one issue. It is, however, just 6% and does not represent the concreting over of the district which was stated at the time. The number of houses having to be built to fund the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Expressway is another example. This is a multimodal system of transport not just a road which was started with and continues in association with the Liberal-Democrats. The number is not 1,000,000 as was said. It is zero. The proposed road requires no housing and such housing that it will facilitate is by and large already included in Local Plans across the whole area.