The row over the Oxfordshire SHMA published last spring is having implications across national policy. John Howell MP (architect of the NPPF) lobbied the government to change national policy (duly changed in guidance) so that SHMA results do not immediately change OAN.
Oxfordshire CPRE commissioned Alan Wenbaugh Smith to challenge it. The problem was the SHMA was so sensitive to certain assumptions it led to a doubling of need. I don’t think a lot of the criticisms are valid but many are. The double counting of a ‘backlog’ of SEP undershoot for example is contrary to PAS/ONS advice and the employment growth assumptions are ‘policy on’ aspirational contrary to other inspector’s findings. Of course there are also arguments, not least from Oxford City, that the numbers are too low. The isue for them being that Cherwell plans for its own needs and none of Oxford’s overspill (which requires a Green Belt review which of course an inspector now cant require under the Boles doctrine). At the first examination last june the local MP Tony Baldry said
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 day two it was suspended for six months and Cherwell increased its numbers in line with the new SHMA.
So where and how are these challenged and tested? In the days of Structure Plans we would have been the HBF on one side and the CPRE on the other. Now the HBF tactics seem to be to not even turn up and get their individual members to – out numbering the opposition and giving a false impression of objective groupthink. This gang approach may sometimes argue for figures which are approximate to OAN, but it can easily confuse the issue over what the objective demographic OAN is with particularist issues (what the housing built should be, how strictly should constraints should be held etc.). For example a green belt campaign has no place in an EIP session on what the OAN should be, on what the housing target should be yes, but these are separate sequential issues as the latest guidance makes clear. There is also a democratic defict as the jobs target has been on the LEP strategic economic plan which is aspirational,not consulted on and untested at any examination.
In October last year the Inspectorate wrote a letter in relationship to the Cherwell examination.
‘As this evidence, is, as yet, untested it is likely to be given very careful consideration by the Inspector when the examination resumes’.
The hearing on the 9th December didnt even have a hearing on whether the evidence was robust, simply asking
Is the overall number of new dwellings sought in policy BSC 1 based on clear and robust
evidence of the full, objectively assessed, local need for new (including affordable) housing
over the plan period, in accord with the NPPF or, if not, what needs to be changed and why?
As you will notice the subject of this question is not the evidence. The PINs committment was not met. I don’t like to criticise inspectors but this was an inadequate way to deal with an issue which has seized national attention as will be seen as a test case.
The inspector rightly bemoaned that the government announcement of 15,000 extra homes at Bicester rather undercut his recommendations. By all accounts the rancour at the examination was a poor show.
As the BRUM inspector said a couple of weeks ago the only way to challenge a SHMA or LEP strategy is through the multiple individual examinations of every single participating body.
PINS should really sense the tinderbox (sorry South Oxfordshire/VOWH – what a shocker) this issue has become has, reopen this examination – on the pretext of the impact of the new guidance, and appoint a second inspector to advise on the technical housing and employment issues.
Overall this shows how the Duty to Cooperate is painful in practice with no proper forum or mechanism to produce, consult on and challenge strategic proposals and in Oxfordshire’s case the number 1 issue, whether or not you need to do a strategic green belt review before you finalise local plans, has not even been answered. Its a joke and an expensive one.
How much simpler it would be if OAN was determined by a body like a reconstituted HPAU with a consistent methodology that ensured no cheating on migration etc. A baseline recommendation that would be firmly ‘policy off’ re employment policy. Then LPAs would jointly determine their position on employment targets, finalize their joint housing target and determine if strategic constraints (such as Green Belt) needed review and consult ‘early’ as the EU SEA directive requires on realistic options for housing, employment and spatial options, with a joint approach to examination of those underlying strategic assumptions. It is clear that Cherwell has not consulted on realtistic options for employment targets, and spatial options including for example Green Belt review rather than all strategic growth in market towns and not around Oxford. Were ROAR to conduct a JR on Forest Heath grounds I think they would succeed. There really is no proper alternative to strategic planning, and the heads in the ground leaders of Oxfordshires districts have simply led their authorities to inevitable legal failure.