Blog: 27 September 2016Oxford’s Housing Needs – The Director’s Cut

Last week, I gave my thoughts on how the Councils in Oxfordshire were proposing to address the City’s inability to build enough homes within its boundary and likened their findings to a disappointing movie sequel, following in the wake of their initial report identifying the need for 32,000 new homes in Oxford. 

Well, if last week’s report was the sequel, the Oxfordshire Growth Board meeting yesterday was definitely the Director’s Cut. I had hoped that yesterday’s meeting would provide us with an insight into their thinking - how a director and their cast would provide voice overs in the ‘extended cut’ of the DVD (do they even still sell these?)

We were not disappointed! The representatives from each of the Councils were forthright in their views, and gave quite an emotional opinion on the process to date. Unfortunately, but perhaps deservedly, that emotion was “fatigue”. A huge amount of work has been invested in this process, and the efforts of the Councils in getting to this stage should be praised. 

Despite this, the meeting was accompanied by a defeatist undertone. This expressed itself in a blatant admission by the Growth Board that the report was simply a “tick in the box” for the plan making process so they can show they have worked together. This was reinforced by an amendment to the Growth Board’s ‘Statement of Cooperation’ – a sort of constitution for the group, that each of the locations of growth that the report identifies are in no way binding. As I discussed in my previous blog, this will likely cause problems because the number of homes given to each of the Councils is based on these areas coming forward for development.  This was only complicated further by promises from South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse that they would continue to challenge Oxford’s ability to build more homes within its own boundaries.

The tone of the discussions and the amendments to their constitution has cast immense doubts over the entire process, despite the huge amount of work invested and the efforts of the Councils in getting to this stage. 

However, all of the above was just a preamble for the “main event”.  A sudden plot twist from the leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, timed perfectly just before the Chairman called a vote to endorse the report! The accusation: what he saw to be a number of flaws in both the way the study had been undertaken and its outcomes. The conclusion: South Oxfordshire would be unable to support the findings of the report and voted against endorsing it – the only Council to do so. 

So what was the response of the other Councils to this plot twist – the ‘Act 3, Scene 1’ of Oxford’s housing needs saga? They resolutely stood fast to the findings of the report and did not give into the accusations. Instead they metaphorically put South Oxfordshire on the naughty step and simply removed them from the stage - the Oxfordshire Statement of Cooperation. 

Despite the drama, this act of defiance by South Oxfordshire has left us with many questions about how the county will deal with Oxford’s pressing housing needs. The commitment to 5,000 more homes going to South Oxfordshire remains, but how will this part now be delivered without a key actor in place? Perhaps the biggest question though is whether South Oxfordshire can now pass the legal ‘Duty to Cooperate’ test when preparing its new Local Plan, showing how it has worked proactively with its neighbours.

Overall, the Growth Board has still been unable to provide a convincing rationale for its conclusions.  Unfortunately, the status of Oxford’s housing problem is likely to remain ambiguous and unquantifiable if no further explanation or authority comes from the Growth Board. The downtrodden and caveated report setting the housing needs for Oxford in each of the rural districts, reinforced by debilitating amendments to the Board’s constitution has left us with much uncertainty over the future of housing in the county. 

We do not underestimate the difficulties facing the Oxfordshire cast – they are in many ways one of the pioneers in attempting to tackle housing demand in a system without an overarching local plan for the whole county. We are left wondering whether the councils have underestimated the value of speaking with important partners, notably communities, the universities, landowners, and developers.  Had these key groups been involved earlier on in a back and forth process to help shape the outcomes, it may have led to a more agreeable and clearer story behind dealing with Oxford’s housing pressures. Could a plan that was about a fundamental transformation in economic growth, infrastructure and services have been more convincing and provide an effective approach as opposed to merely “adding up” individual sites?

The Director’s Cut, while interesting in setting out their reasoning as well as tensions and spats between the cast members, served simply to further undermine the report’s authority. We will of course wait patiently for the next big Oxfordshire blockbuster, and hopefully we will see a return to the ‘silver screen’ from South Oxfordshire.

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