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Statement from Cllr Sue Cooper, Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council

Cllr Sue Cooper, Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, spoke to Oxfordshire County Councillors on 11 February ahead of their decision to accept a possible government invitation to progress the emerging South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034.

Following the county council’s decision, Cllr Cooper said: “I regret the decision made by the county council today, and would like to thank those who came to the meeting to support the principle of local democracy and decision-making.  We wish to continue working constructively with the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government and Oxfordshire County Council to keep local plan making with South Oxfordshire.

“We would like to know more about the Secretary of State’s suggestion to propose changes to the plan through the examination process, with the aim of putting our plan at the forefront of the latest bold and far-reaching thinking on the climate emergency rather than being the last of the environmentally damaging plans. 

“Our preference remains to discuss the mechanism to propose such changes in a face-to-face meeting with the Secretary of State, as he agreed in parliament in response to a question from Layla Moran MP. We are yet to hear back from the Secretary of State on our request to hold this meeting.

“If we are prevented from withdrawing this plan and working on a new one ourselves, we must at least be able to uphold the principle of local democracy by proposing improvements.”

Here is the speech that Cllrs Sue Cooper gave at the Oxfordshire County Council meeting on 11 February 2020:

Cllr Sue Cooper speaking note for Oxfordshire County Council meeting Tues 11 February item 9

Max 5 mins address. Public address is item 6 on agenda.

But when I stood up to speak I was told I only had 2.5 minutes so I did not have time to read it all.

I speak as Leader of my council. Other cabinet members are here today to put our case and to hear your deliberations. Please think very carefully about the consequences of accepting an invitation from the Secretary of State. I ask that you reject the recommendation.

Accepting your officer’s recommendation will have a serious impact upon local democracy. Like you, we are elected councillors and have a duty to properly represent our residents.

Yes, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene on planning matters. However, the removal of statutory power from one council and giving to another by invitation is a very serious matter in local government working relationships. Wouldn’t it place your council in an invidious position if in the future, the Secretary of State sought to transfer your statutory powers and responsibilities elsewhere, against your wishes?

You will be aware that the Secretary of State has directed that my Council can take no steps in connection with the adoption of the emerging Local Plan 2034. This direction was imposed prior to my Council being able to consider the recommendation of my Cabinet, so there is no formal decision of my Council to withdraw the emerging Local Plan 2034. It is purely the Secretary of State’s directive that has delayed any further work on the plan & the Housing Infrastructure Funding (HIF) for much needed roads around Didcot.

I am sure your officers will have explained that the direction and associated legislation being considered by the Secretary of State are all based around local plans that are unsatisfactory or where the council has failed or omitted to undertake work regarding its preparation.  I, and my Cabinet, agree with the Secretary of State that the emerging Local Plan 2034 is unsatisfactory. Hence, I am bemused that the Secretary of State has said that it is essential the local plan should proceed? There is clearly an inconsistency in this approach to date and I question whether your council would want to be a part of this irrational procedure?  Accepting your officer’s recommendation would mean that you are condoning an abuse of the Secretary of State’s powers.

My council continues to consider the legalities of this matter.

We recommended to our Council to withdraw the emerging Local Plan 2034, particularly as we have a Core Strategy which runs until 2027 and a strong housing land supply of 9.8 years.  Cabinet’s decision was influenced by a clear electoral mandate given to us in the May elections last year by the residents of South Oxfordshire that they were unhappy with the plan.  I would hope, as elected representatives, you would respect that democratic view.

I am also very concerned about the impact of your decision today would have on the financial position of my council. If you accept any invitation from the Secretary of State to progress our emerging Local Plan 2034, you will be able to recover all your costs, which would then be imposed on my council and our residents. This potential cost is unknown. There has been no dialogue between our respective councils to understand what this would mean. I would hope as responsible councillors that you would think this unknown is unacceptable and to agree officer’s recommendation today is not in the public interest of our residents in how we manage public money.

Since my speaking time was halved, I did not have time to finish. The remainder of my speech was read out in the afternoon during the debate on agenda item 9.

I believe it is important to remember that we are all part of the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal and we need to work together in the interests of Oxfordshire residents. I and my Cabinet recognise this. We respect the agreement regarding housing numbers in the deal, which we shall honour. Oxfordshire is starting to build up a reputation for working well together on things like the Growth Board and producing a 2050 plan. Do you think that removing our planning powers strengthens this working together?

My council has expressed its support for the HIF funding for key road infrastructure to support local and internationally recognised businesses, such as at Culham, the housing in and around Didcot, and the impact on our neighbour; Vale of White Horse District Council. I am very frustrated by the link between the HIF funding and the proposed housing allocations in our emerging Local Plan 2034, but I believe this can be addressed to enable implementation of this much needed infrastructure. I have written to the Chair of Homes England, the funding body, indicating as much. Please do not to vote just because you want the HIF money. This is about PLANNING. 

In summary, we believe that if you accept your officer’s recommendation you will:

  1. be allowing the erosion of local democracy and disrespecting the democratic views of Oxfordshire residents;
  2. be agreeing that it is acceptable to take on the statutory function of another council against their wishes;
  3. be condoning what appears to be an abuse of power by the Secretary of State if he invites you to prepare the South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034, and
  4. incur excessive and uncosted public expenditure, affecting the residents of Oxfordshire.

I therefore strongly request you reject the recommendation to accept an invitation from the Secretary of State to prepare the South Oxfordshire Local Plan 2034, if it is offered.

Finally, even if you do vote for it, I hope we can work together on it for the good of the people of South Oxfordshire.