Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Green council leader attacks minister for intervening on plan

Green council leader attacks minister for intervening on plan

THE leader of South Oxfordshire District Council claims it was “unnacceptable” for the Government to step in and stop it from scrapping its local plan and writing a new one.

Councillor Sue Cooper was responding to the decision by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick to order the council to halt discussion on the plan just a day in advance of the meeting.

Her Green-Liberal Democrat coalition, which took control of the council in May, was critical of the number of homes and environmental approach in the document, which was approved by the previous Conservative administration.

The cabinet was recommending to the meeting on Thursday last week that a new plan should be devised at a cost £2 million.

However, the opposition Tories had argued that this would put at risk £218million of government funding for infrastructure improvement across Oxfordshire in order to accommodate more than 28,000 new homes.

In a letter to the council the day before the meeting, Mr Jenrick said he was considering taking the matter out of the council’s hands. He warned Cllr Cooper “not to take any step in connection with the adoption of the plan” while he was deciding what to do.

Mr Jenrick said: “Withdrawing the plan at this stage is likely to create uncertainty and expose communities to speculative planning applications.

“I would like to work constructively with you to ensure that South Oxfordshire is able to deliver the high-quality homes and infrastructure required to support jobs and growth in the local community.”

Cllr Cooper apologised to members of the public who attended the meeting only to find out they would not be allowed to ask questions.

She said: “This last-minute move by the Government is an unacceptable intervention into local democracy.

“The Secretary of State removed the democratic right of South Oxfordshire councillors and residents who turned out in great numbers to exercise those rights through listening, debating and voting in public on a matter of great importance to our district and who have now been unfairly silenced.

“This is all a great dissapointment to district councillors who remain committeed to doing the right thing for the needs of residents and communities within our district.

“Throughout this process, we have taken a reasonable and responsible approach and will continue to do so.”

Suggestions that the plan could be modified or withdrawn entirely were previously condemned by the Government and warnings were issued about the potential loss of infrastructure funding.

Mark Stone, chief executive of the council, has replied to Mr Jenrick, questioning whether he had the power to impose his will on the authority.

He said: “The council remains committed to delivering a sound local plan and considers it of the utmost importance to uphold the vital principles of local democracy. It is in no one’s interest for the local plan to be placed on hold.”

Henley Residents Group councillor Stefan Gawrysiak said the plan process had already cost £5 million and the plan should not be withdrawn as it could “open the floodgates” to speculative developments.

He added: “There is a whole domino effect of losing out on the funding.

“I personally welcome the letter from Mr Jenrick because it gives us the opportunity to pause and think about this strategy.

“The Government has the legal right to take over but he has stopped short of that. He has just said that no decision can be made until he comes back to the council.

“I have always said that the local plan should not be withdrawn and go forward as it is. If they want to submit amendments then that is fine, but it should not be at the expense of the funding.”

Councillor Cooper said starting on a new “ambitious” plan was not easy but it was the right thing to do.

Green councillor Jo Robb accused the Gvernment of “gagging” the council and “crushing local democracy”.

She added: “The Government says it supports localism but this is only the case when local authorities do what it wants them to do.”

Henley MP John Howell said the best option would be to send the plan to an independent inspector.

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