A good co-operative start
Despite the political differences and diversity of urban and rural landscape, the Oxfordshire authorities have led the way nationally with co-operative working through the Oxfordshire Growth Board and subsequent Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal (OHGD) (November 2017) as witnessed most recently at the Cherwell Local Plan examination last week where Oxford City and West Oxfordshire battled away to assist Cherwell.
They have already agreed a Statement of Common Ground (March 2018) on this plan with minimal dispute and regard the OHGD funding as a direct response to their ‘track record of successful joint working in Oxfordshire’. This means that there can be more optimism about the Oxfordshire 2050 process and progress than there would be in many other areas nationwide.
Much to do quickly
The plan process begins tentatively with the intention of ‘starting a conversation and dissecting ‘issues’ and ‘options’ into two separate consultation processes.
With so much to grapple with, and a slow start, the timetable seeking publication of a draft plan in October 2019 and submission of the plan in March 2020 (the latter required by the OHGD) is eye-wateringly tight – and this is at a time when the preceding local plans in Cherwell and South Oxfordshire are still unresolved.
Reasons to be cheerful – within reason
There is much optimism coursing through the documents reflecting the county’s ‘economic success’. My children and their classmates are fortunate to be growing up in an area of above average quality of life and educational attainment, reflecting the fact that ‘Oxfordshire has one of the strongest economies in the UK’ being ‘one of only three net contributors to the Treasury’.
This forms a hugely positive starting point for any plan – although as it acknowledges ‘high house prices threaten quality of life and well being’.
Furthermore the opportunity for readily available options for new developments is constrained as ‘many parts of the county are protected at national and international level for their nature conservation value’. In a nutshell this is a clear challenge for all of us in the planning profession to seek to resolve this clear tension and help deliver the necessary solutions. This process will begin with a novel ‘call for ideas’ rather than the more familiar ‘sites’ requiring fresh thinking from us all.
The nuts and bolts – TBC
Whilst recognising that it needs to deliver a solution that responds to ‘the number of new market and affordable homes and level of economic growth needed across Oxfordshire’ within a matter months the plan is remarkably coy about the extent of development aspirations.
Housing need will ‘comprehensively test a range of options for growth, informed by the standard methodology, up to date evidence and ongoing engagement with stakeholders’. Similarly economic need ‘is for Oxfordshire to determine (in the light of evidence available)’. My experience at the Cherwell examination last week suggests that this process could take months of examination time – let alone months of plan preparation time.
Not all of this uncertainty is within the control of the Oxfordshire authorities – with a perhaps the largest understatement being that ‘the route of the OxCam Expressway will have implications for . . . shaping the Spatial Strategy of the Oxfordshire Plan’.
Where? Where? Where?
Given the uncertainty regarding the key housing and economic inputs, it is unsurprising that little detailed thought has gone into the potential spatial strategy – although the potential options identified would keep my children’s geometry class busy for hours.
It is also unclear - and I anticipate a source of future tension - that whilst the Oxfordshire Plan will determine the spatial strategy for broad development patterns it ‘will not allocate sites except at the request of the relevant local planning authority’.
Perhaps the clearest, and most controversial statement, is the recognition that the plan ‘offers an opportunity to assess the overall Oxford Green Belt strategy’.