DEMOCRACY, the environment and the housing crisis butted up against one another in a debate over who should control planning powers in South Oxfordshire.
At a meeting today, Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) agreed it would take control of South Oxfordshire District Council’s Local Plan for housing – but only if it was invited to by the government.
This was in preparation ahead of a decision by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick, who has said he is ‘minded’ to hand control of the plan to OCC.Thirteen residents and councillors spoke against the proposal at the meeting, describing the plan to take power over where and how many homes are built in the district as undemocratic.
County council leader Ian Hudspeth said the council had found itself in a situation it had not asked for, but added keeping the SODC Local Plan on the table was important for tackling the housing crisis in Oxfordshire, re-opening the Cowley Branch Line and building new roads around Didcot.
While most Labour and Conservative councillors voted in favour of taking over the plan, the Lib Dem group stood against.
Mr Hudspeth said: “This is not a situation that I or Oxfordshire county councillors sought, but the only way forward for us to have progression is to accept the position: if the secretary of state asks us.”
There were fears that £218 million of government funding for new roads to ease traffic in Didcot, as well as the £215 million Oxfordshire Growth Deal for new homes and roads across the county, could be put at risk if the current SODC Local Plan did not go ahead.
Labour opposition leader Liz Brighouse said she would be supporting the motion as people living in her ward of Lye Valley were in desperate need of new homes, which could be addressed by building on the edge of Oxford at Grenoble Road.
Grenoble Road is within SODC’s boundaries.She amended the wording of the recommendation being discussed by the council, so it set out the reasons why SODC’s Local Plan had come to the county council.
The amendment, which passed, included the need to address housing need by building at Grenoble Road, as well as re-opening the Cowley branch line.
She said: “I will be supporting this… if the minister comes to us, we will protect this plan and deliver these houses.”
Conservative councillor Arash Fatemian disputed claims the county council was a lapdog for the government, and said it had stood against Conservative central government plans several times in the past, including on austerity measures.
Many of the public speakers who objected to OCC taking over the plan said it needed to be rewritten to address the climate crisis, while still meeting housing needs.
First among the public speakers was Sue Cooper, leader of SODC.
She was shocked to discover she had only two-and-a-half minutes to speak in the meeting, having been told she had five before it started.
She urged OCC members to vote down the takeover.
Ms Cooper said: “I would ask you to reject this recommendation. Accepting your officers’ recommendation will have a serious impact on local democracy.
“Accepting your officers’ recommendation means you are condoning an abuse of power by the secretary of state.”
The Lib Dem leader added there were currently safeguards in place which meant SODC was not completely without a local plan.These safeguards included an eight-year supply of land where new homes could be built, and the council’s core strategy which provided basic guidance on housing lasting until 2027.
Though she was cut off, Ms Cooper finished by asking OCC to respect the views of residents, who had voted in her Lib Dem-Green coalition council in May last year by an overwhelming majority.
The last public speaker was South Oxfordshire resident Claire Bird, who spoke to raise her concerns about climate change and asked the council to vote down the recommendation.
Ms Bird said: “However tangled up you feel in the detail, however much there is worry about money, party politics or power, could you stand back a few paces and look at the bigger picture?
“I have been brave speaking here today, you can be brave for all of us too.”
Ahead of the meeting, residents, campaign groups and councillors held a demonstration outside county hall in the blistering cold wind.
They held aloft a banner reading ‘Save Our Democracy’ and placards demanding protection for green belt land.
In October last year, the government’s housing secretary Robert Jenrick suspended South Oxfordshire District Council’s power to talk about its Local Plan.
Residents of South Oxfordshire elected the Lib Dems and Greens to scrap the Local Plan as they were worried about proposals for 28,500 new homes in the area by 2030.
Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran has invited Robert Jenrick to sit down and speak with the leaders of SODC about the plan.