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The Battle for Oxfordshire

Early last week, the "Examination in Public" (EIP) started on Cherwell District Council's agreed Local Plan. Every District Council needs an approved Local Plan. At present, Cherwell hasn't got one...

Early last week, the "Examination in Public" (EIP) started on Cherwell District Council's agreed Local Plan.

Every District Council needs an approved Local Plan.

At present, Cherwell hasn't got one.

Over the last couple of years with the assistance of numerous planning consultants and professional advisers, Cherwell calculated how many new houses would need to be built in the District until 2031 and then following extensive local consultation, District Councillors agreed a Plan as to where that housing should go.

Most of it in the District's two main towns of Banbury and Bicester.

One would have hoped that after so much painstaking work, so much professional input and so much public consultation that the EIP would have been calm and that it would have been relatively straightforward for Cherwell to convince the Planning Inspector that Cherwell's proposals were robust and realistic.

It was not to be.

The opening day of the EIP was dominated by loud, synthetically angry, farragoes speeches by well-paid Planning Silks instructed by Oxford City Council declaiming Cherwell's agreed Local Plan as being inadequate.

On the surface, the row focused on the appropriate methodology that should be used to calculate Cherwell's housing needs until 2031 - but the methodology used by Cherwell has been methodology approved and accepted by professional planners.

However, as part of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the District Councils throughout Oxfordshire were obliged to collectively carry out what is known as a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA).

This assessment concluded that Oxfordshire would between now and 2031 require twice the number of houses that had been predicted by local authorities combined.

The methodology used for the SHMA appears to work on the basis that because Oxfordshire's economy is growing so fast and generating so many jobs, the county will attract many more people wanting to move to Oxfordshire and therefore a need for more houses. As more houses are built, so the economy will grow faster and so they have modelled an economic fly-wheel effect resulting in predictions of much higher housing need.

However, the appropriateness of the methodology used for the SHMA has been attacked - not just by organisations concerned with the countryside such as CPRE but also by a number of professional planners and serious planning academics.

One would have thought that over a period of time, the Inspector would take evidence from all the parties concerned.

Take evidence from the planning consultants and others who are responsible for advising on the methodology used by Cherwell District Council in determining their housing numbers.

Hear evidence from those responsible for drafting the SHMA.

Take evidence from planning consultants and planning academics who have challenged and criticised the SHMA methodology.

Take evidence from representatives of other concerned parties, such as representatives of the house-builders and the CPRE and that the Inspector would then come to a reasoned and informed judgement as to what is the appropriate methodology to calculate Cherwell's housing needs.

To set out in a reasoned, written decision what he considered to be the appropriate methodology and how he had come to that decision, so that it could be understood by everyone.

None of this happened.

Astonishingly on Day 2, the Inspector halted the EIP and adjourned it for six months.

Without having heard any actual evidence, the Inspector has indicated that he considers the SHMA to be the appropriate base line on which to calculate housing needs between now and 2031.

The Inspector appears to have sent Cherwell District Council away to re-calculate their housing need and more immediately to come up with a whole number of further sites for housing to be included in their Local Plan.

An immediate effect of the Inspector's decision, both to indicate that he thinks the SHMA is the appropriate methodology and adjourning the EIP for a further six months, is to effectively give open season to any house-builder or developer to make further opportunist planning applications in Cherwell.

To be able to resist opportunist planning applications, Cherwell District Council have to have an approved Local Plan and demonstrate that they have a five-year housing supply.

Cherwell don't have an approved Local Plan - they have an agreed Local Plan.

Ministers have issued recent Planning Guidance indicating that where a local authority has an agreed Local Plan, that Local Plan should be given considerable weight if a planning application is appealed

But, and this is a very important but - to be able to resist an appeal, the local authority also has to be able to demonstrate that they have a five-year housing supply.

Until last week, Cherwell District Council considered that they did have a robust five-year housing supply.

However, that five-year housing supply was predicated on the housing numbers predicted by Cherwell, based on the methodology that they had used to draft their Local Plan.

The Inspector has effectively indicated - as far as I can see without taking any evidence - that the appropriate housing numbers for Cherwell are not 16,000 between now and 2031 but some 22,000. As a result, to be able to demonstrate that they have a five-year housing supply, Cherwell is likely to need to significantly increase the local sites granted planning permission.

Obviously this can't be done overnight.

It thus means that any developer or house-builder will be able to come along over the next few months, put in planning permission for pretty well any site in the District. If the planning permission is refused by the District Council, the developer will simply go to appeal and say to the Inspector on the Planning Appeal that whatever the merits or otherwise of their planning application, the housing numbers will help meet Cherwell District Council's five-year housing supply and should be granted.

On the basis of recent decisions on planning appeals in Cherwell, appeals in those circumstances are almost certainly going to be allowed.

There is however a bigger story behind last week's events at Cherwell's EIP and that is the ambition of the Labour Party running Oxford City Council to turn Oxford into a Unitary Local Authority and in so doing, annex chunks of the county which are at present in South Oxfordshire District Council and Cherwell District Council.

During the time of the Blair Labour Government, Oxford City Council asked to become a Unitary Local Authority.

Even the last Labour Government rejected such a notion on the basis that the then Oxford City Council was something of a basket case and in any event, the city was geographically too small to become a Unitary Authority.

Recently the Leader of Oxford City Council has been running around declaring that if there is a Labour Government after the next General Election that the Labour Party has promised that they can become a Unitary Authority. According to the Oxford Mail "Labour City Councillor Bob Price expects Oxford to be included in a review of Local Authority structures which he says could follow next year's Poll - once again raising the controversial subject of raising the County's governance to Unitary Authorities.

"Oxford would become a powerful city region if Labour is able to introduce the recommendations in the interim report of a review being drawn up by former Labour Cabinet Minister Lord Adonis", and Bob Price himself has said "When the new Labour Government takes office in May 2015, the radical devolution of powers and financial resources to City regions contained within the Adonis Report will be accompanied by some adjustments to Local Authority structures and I would expect Oxford to be involved in that review process."

Mr. Price has made clear that he envisages that the new Oxford Unitary Authority, if there were a Labour Government, would cover Oxford and some of its surrounding areas, including Kidlington, Botley and the land south of the Grenoble Road where the Oxford City Council wants to have thousands of houses built.

One can only assume that the Labour Party in Oxford have received some assurances from Ed Miliband. However, the City Council say that they can't meet their own housing need so want it to be done by others and they want to expand the city's boundaries to make their total numbers larger.

In particular, they want to see substantial housing take place on the Oxford Green Belt. So the cries of the Planning Silks, instructed by Oxford City Council, are that the Inspector carrying out Cherwell's EIP should indicate that there should be a wholesale review of the Oxford Green Belt and that in due course, the Inspector should indicate that there should be substantial new building in Oxford and South Oxfordshire and substantial new building around Kidlington, effectively building on any green land between Kidlington, Gosford and Water Eaton.

What is extraordinary is that within a day, the Planning Inspector conducting the Cherwell EIP buckled and caved to this campaign by Oxford City Council to both seemingly destroy the Oxford Green Belt and effectively annex chunks of neighbouring Districts.

Cherwell District Council is now looking for ways in which they can accommodate the further 6,000 houses between now and 2031. I understand that Planning Officers are confident that many of those new houses can be provided for by sites already designated in the Local Plan in many instances by simply expanding those sites.

What is important, however, is that housing provision for Cherwell is determined by Cherwell's housing needs and not by the political ambitions of the Labour Party in Oxford.

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