Tuesday, 28 January 2020
What price ‘Localism’ now?
I expect most of you will have heard by now of the controversy surrounding the South Oxfordshire Local Plan. This plan got as far as its formal examination in March of last year, under the former Tory administration in South Oxon, but was the subject of furious opposition by local residents who were horrified at the huge increase in housing development that was proposed across the area. This may well have been a factor in the defeat of the Tories in South Oxon in the May 2019 council elections, leading to control of the council being taken over by a coalition of Lib Dems with the Green Party.
The new council withdrew the draft plan from examination in October, because of concern over the increased housing target in the new plan, coupled with the issues raised by the climate emergency, which they felt had not been given sufficient weight in formulating the plan. Most of all, the decision reflected the serious concerns of local electors, which had been expressed through the ballot box in May.
The government had been attempting to bribe Oxfordshire authorities with a promise of more than £200 million in infrastructure grants if they would accept a substantial increase in housing in the county. The proposed withdrawal of the Local Plan promptly led to the government threatening to withdraw this funding. But SODC was not deterred, and made it clear that they would nevertheless persist in their intention of withdrawing their local plan.
Having failed to bribe the council, the government then resorted to threats. A holding direction was issued by the Secretary of State in order to prevent SODC from carrying out their intention, and he followed this up with threats to call in the Local Plan, and then to hand it to the Tory-controlled Oxfordshire County Council to handle. (Unfortunately, it seems that MHLG did not warn OCC of their intention beforehand, and the County is still in the dark as to where the resources are to be found for taking on this task!)
Robert Jenrick (Secretary-of-State-for-the-time-being-pending-Boris-Johnson’s-pleasure) demanded that South Oxfordshire Council should write to him by the end of this month to explain themselves. This they have now done, making a number of very reasonable points, and taking an emollient line (including a request for face-to-face talks with Jenrick, if he’s still there after the pending cabinet reshuffle). Perhaps the most important point in the letter, in addition to the need to address the climate emergency was the fact that the councillors now in office were elected on the basis of their opposition to the draft local plan, and that they therefore have what they believe is “a clear electoral mandate given to us by the residents of South Oxfordshire”. As the council leader pointed out in her letter, the proposed course of action threatened by Jenrick would be a dangerous precedent that would undermine local democracy. It is a great irony that John Howell, the MP for Henley whose constituency covers a large part of South Oxfordshire, was the author of the Tories’ ‘Green Paper’ before the 2010 General Election, which introduced the concept of “localism”, coupled with a commitment that the level of development should be determined at a local level, rather than being imposed from above.
I am not trying to take sides in this dispute. Clearly there are arguments on both sides. The Secretary of State does have the necessary powers to take the action he has threatened, but he must act reasonably (in accordance with the Wednesbury principles). If the matter is taken out of SODC’s hands, an application to the High Court for judicial review seems a distinct possibility. At the moment, both parties seem to be circling each other warily, trying not to put a legal foot wrong. But I can’t help feeling that m’learned friends are already salivating at the prospect of a juicy case ahead.
We shall see.
© MARTIN H GOODALL