Cllr Robin Bennett's speech to Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet meeting 15 October 2019

Released on October 15, 2019

Good afternoon Cabinet, and thanks for permitting me to address you today.

I’m district councillor for Berinsfield and a cabinet member at South Oxfordshire District Council.

I have also been given responsibility for assisting the Leader of SODC, Cllr Sue Cooper, on discussions with Oxfordshire County Council and MHCLG regarding HIF.

In that role I have attended two informal meetings chaired by Cllr Barry Wood with Cllr Hudspeth, Leader of OCC, Cllr Heathcoat, Deputy Leader and your chief executive, and I thank them for the time and commitment to finding a solution for all our residents.  I also attended a constructive and positive meeting with the director general and officers at MHCLG.

Officers from our council have worked closely with OCC officers to explore alternatives that would enable infrastructure funded by HIF to proceed regardless of what happens with South Oxfordshire’s emerging Local Plan. I would like to record my gratitude for the efforts of all concerned and the many hours spent looking for a solution.

Recently, on 3 October, after much deliberation and consideration of the possible options, SODC Cabinet made a recommendation that the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan should be withdrawn. The reasons given in the cabinet motion included that-

•        the uplift above the standard method is excessive

•        the overall supply is excessive

•        the Local Plan does not give sufficient weight to responding to the climate emergency

•        and concerns about the scale of Green Belt release and the sustainability of strategic allocations

Cabinet unanimously supported the recommendation, and Council was due to debate and vote on it last Thursday.

At least 34 public speakers were lined up to have their say, including campaigners and developers from sites linked to the original HIF proposal, and councillors from other councils perhaps including some in this room.

However, 24 hours or so before the meeting, our chief executive received a letter from the Secretary of State which prevented any further steps being taken towards adoption of the emerging local plan, effectively gagging our council. We wrote back asking the detailed reasons for the letter, but only received a brief confirmation. As a result, the speakers returned home without speaking, council did not debate or vote on the plan, and it remains at inspection until Mr Jenrick elects to return it to us. As a consequence, reading your officer recommendation today, it appears to me that it is entirely in the Secretary of State’s gift  whether this project now proceeds, and from his correspondence to us, it seems that he strongly wishes it to do so.

I have heard a powerful economic case for the Thames crossing, from UKAEA and others, and a national interest case from the Prime Minister.  Having lived in the area most of my life I am fully aware of Didcot’s historic lack of suitable infrastructure provision. More routes over and under the railway have always been needed, and now the cooling towers are gone, we need to work together to live up to the Garden Town promises. I would be happy to work with my county and Vale equivalents to write a joint letter to the Secretary of State helping to set out the strong economic development and jobs case for this infrastructure, regardless of housing considerations.

As part of our deliberations, the excellent OCC transport officers gave a full briefing to our members, setting out their vision for the HIF infrastructure. In particular, the safely segregated 10KM of cycle and pedestrian routes are the right direction of travel in this age of the climate emergency, clean growth and modal shift. This idea was set out clearly by Cllr Bartholomew in a recent motion on another bridge, in Reading, which was something we were able to discuss (at some length) last week and was widely supported across the political spectrum. We would hope as the Science bridge and the rest of the project is defined in more detail this element will get even more focus, dispelling any feared link to the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, which SODC has resolved to oppose, including expansion of existing or new roads in the district to form part of it.

Though not a party to the contract before you, South Oxfordshire councillors would welcome the chance to be part of a members design panel. We also welcome the new bus route from Abingdon to Culham Science Centre and hope this can become more frequent and be extended to more destinations, because we all agree on the need to move away rapidly from car dependency. This is harder in rural areas, and I have sat in traffic jams at Culham and Clifton Hampden, but we need to make sure we don’t generate even more traffic; we need to make sure public transport and active travel provision is there and people are incentivised to make the switch.

I know you share my view that local democracy is so important, especially as it keeps communities close to the decisions that affect them. In the HIF process, community support and consent is one of the criteria, and it should not be assumed. In my own ward, unlike many villages in the district, there is support for some development, which would require this infrastructure to move forward, at least under the current transport modelling. We know some sites in the Vale adopted plan require it. I hope the Secretary of State has given you sufficient grounds to proceed and that Homes England will move forward rapidly and work with you to deliver the HIF infrastructure if you remain willing to.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you on this and I know we share a desire to do our best for the residents of our county; I hope that will be communicated to the minister by any channels you may have to contact him. Thank you for your time today, I would commend the officer recommendations to you.