Time to put the horse before the cart

Hulton Park

14th June 2019

CPRE says Oxford’s Local Plan should be examined ahead of other Districts, as Planning Inspectors reveal concerns over high housing numbers.

 This week, the joint Planning Inspectors looking at Oxford City’s Draft Local Plan published their Initial Questions & Comments (see foot of page). They have found such serious issues to be addressed that they do not want to move to the next stage – public hearings – without further evidence.

And the principle issues they have raised are exactly those that CPRE has been putting forward from the outset: Oxford City appears to be considerably over-stating its housing need and at the same time under-estimating how many houses it could build within its own boundaries.

CPRE has said from the outset that the first local Plan to be examined by Inspectors should be the Oxford Plan since so much of the housing numbers in all the other plans arises from “Oxford’s ummet need” – the difference between how many houses Oxford needs and how many it can accommodate. To examine the other plans first and the Oxford plan last was, we said, putting all the carts before the horse. Nevertheless that is what has been done. West Oxfordshire, Vale and Cherwell Plans have all been examined. South Oxfordshire too was due to be examined before the results of the Oxford Plan examination were known. Now putting the carts before the horse has come home to roost.

The joint Inspectors examining the Oxford City Plan have serious questions (to put it mildly) about the evidence for the housing numbers Oxford has used and about its claims of its limited capacity to contain them.  In its own submission to the Oxford Plan CPRE stated that the numbers are far too high and the City’s capacity to build houses is far greater than it states. It seems the Inspectors have agreed that there is certainly a case to be examined here, and that the numbers are in principle “unsound”. Oxford City may well have a much lower need and a much higher capacity, which would make the “unmet need” the surrounding Councils would have to accommodate largely or completely disappear. This in turn means that the figure for “Oxford’s unmet need” that were cooked up by the Oxfordshire Growth Board, and on which all of the current suite of Oxfordshire Plans are based, may well be found unsound (Inspector speak for wrong).

This in turn throws the soundness of all the Plans of the surrounding Districts into question. The recently adopted Plan for West Oxfordshire depends on the Growth Board figures, and if these turn out to be unsound as the Inspectors indicate, then the Council will have to review it. The Plans for the Vale and Cherwell both rely entirely on the Growth Board figures, and would be unsound if the figures are discredited. Neither Council should adopt their plan until the Oxford examination has been concluded. South Oxfordshire’s plan is in a state of some flux but as it stands it too would be unsound if the Inspectors examining the Oxford Plan find the Growth Board figures wrong as it appears they may well do.

These are not matters of decimal places and roundings. Oxford says it needs 28,000 houses when the Government’s own calculation would be 13,000. Oxford says it can only accommodate 8,600 houses when only two years ago it said 13,000 and we say it could accommodate over 30,000 if it adopted the higher densities the Government recommends and stopped ringfenci9ng land needed for housing for future unnecessary employment.

That means that the 15,000 house “unmet need” surrounding Districts are being forced to accommodate, largely in the Green Belt, could disappear entirely when Oxford’s need and capacity are examined properly. That in turn means that neither Cherwell nor South Oxfordshire would need to proceed with the Green Belt releases they are currently planning around the City’s edge. The Vale could revoke its proposal to build 1,200 houses on the open Green Belt land at Dalton Barracks and instead plan properly for a longer-term exemplar development on the brownfield area of the site.

What we require now is that all the surrounding Local Plans are suspended (without penalty from housing supply rules) until the Oxford City Plan is properly examined – which is the “horse first” strategy we recommended in the first place.