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Legal challenge launched against South Oxfordshire local plan

Words: Laura Edgar
Legal challenge / iStock-914921790

Residents in South Oxfordshire have issued a legal claim against the council’s decision to adopt its local plan, which facilitates the delivery of 23,550 homes during the period to 2035.

This includes provision for Oxford City Council’s unmet need.

South Oxfordshire District Council’s local plan had a rocky road to adoption. At a meeting in October 2019, the council’s cabinet recommended that councillors should vote to withdraw the emerging local plan to 2034 and begin work on a new “ambitious” plan. The plan was initially submitted for examination by the then-Conservative administration in March 2019, but the council is now held by a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Green Party councillors.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick issued a holding direction on the local plan to prevent it being withdrawn in October 2019.

In March last year, he removed the holding direction but considered there to be a “clear case” for him to intervene. He directed the council to progress the plan and adopt it by December 2020.

Subsequently, a planning inspector backed the housing targets and green belt allocations in the plan. “Over the plan period the delivery potential is 30,056 dwellings, which represents headroom of around 27 per cent above the requirement of 23,550,” the inspector’s report states.

The council voted to adopt the local plan as directed in December, but nine councillors abstained on the basis that the intervention from Jenrick meant the vote was not a free vote. They felt the choice was between adopting the local plan or having it “thrust” upon them.

The Bioabundance Community Interest Company, which is crowdfunding the legal action, has named Jenrick as an interested party in its application to have the plan quashed by the planning court under s.113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

A statement from Bioabundance Community Interest Company notes that the housing secretary threatened to withhold promised infrastructure funding for projects including the Didcot Science Bridge and the Milton Interchange dual carriageway if the local plan was not adopted.

The company’s grounds for a legal challenge:

  • The conduct of the adoption vote: the way that it unlawfully took into consideration the threatened consequences of government intervention and was dictated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
  • The calculation of housing numbers by the plan inspector of building 775 dwellings per annum instead of the standard 627.
  • That inadequate regard was paid to the effect of high housing numbers on climate change.

Dr Sue Roberts, director of Bioabundance, said: “The local plan Inspector supported building a higher number of dwellings than the standard recommendation, without explaining why. The local plan grossly over-provides for housing: space is allocated for over 30,000 homes, four times the number that can even be filled, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Unneeded housing is no rationale for worsening climate breakdown and the collapse of the natural world.

“This is the first time a local plan has ever been challenged because of our climate and ecological crisis. This pioneering action by Bioabundance is our last chance to put our environment before housebuilder profit in South Oxfordshire.”

Leigh Day solicitor Tom Short, who represents Bioabundance with barristers Tim Buley QC and Alex Shattock of Landmark Chambers, said: “Our client is concerned about both the manner in which the local plan has been forced through under enormous pressure from the secretary of state, and the detrimental environmental impacts it will lead to. It is important that decisions of local authorities that have significant ramifications for the environment for years to come be taken in a free and fair manner, not dictated by central government as appears to have happened here.”

Image credit | iStock