Thursday, 24 June 2021

Judge rejects second legal challenge to housing plan

Judge rejects second legal challenge to housing plan

A LEGAL challenge to South Oxfordshire District Council’s local plan has been refused for a second time.

Bioabundance, a community interest company, claims the document contradicts the Government’s climate change targets.

In March, High Court judge Mr Justice Dove rejected its application for a judicial review.

Now the firm has lost an appeal against that decision. Mrs Justice Lang described the case as “unarguable”.

The document sets out the district’s housing needs for the next 15 years but Bioabundance claimed councillors were pressured into adopting it in December.

They also felt it does not pay enough attention to the mitigation measures for building 23,550 new homes.

When a Liberal Democrats and Green coalition took charge of the council in May 2019, it proposed to scrap the plan, which had been drawn up by the former Conservative administration.

However, this was blocked by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, who issued a directive that the plan be adopted by the end of 2020.

This was achieved but seven councillors voted against, including leader Sue Cooper, a Lib-Dem. There were also nine abstentions.

Jenny Wigley, representing Bioabundance, claimed the inspector who oversaw a public examination of the plan had not provided enough justification for the level of development and impact on the environment and green belt.

She also said councillors felt pressured into approving the plan for fear of missing out on infrastructure funding and losing control over planning matters.

She said: “We say the council took into account matters that were not related to the use or character of the land but instead extraneous matters.

“There were threats of having powers taken away and future funding and income streams lost that were not related. The council has to have a free unfettered decision.”

Miss Wigley said the plan was “driven by growth ambitions beyond the standard method” and the inspector had failed to grapple the contradiction with climate change targets.

District councillor Sue Roberts, who founded Bioabundance, said: “We were under ‘dictation’ by Robert Jenrick and threatened with losing our financing and our powers.

“This greedy plan is to build four houses for every new home that can be filled by our slowly growing population.”

James Goudie, representing the Secretary of State, described the appellant’s case as “hopeless” and said Bioabundance had passed off the pressures of being a council as coercion by Mr Jenrick.

He also said the inspector “gave perfectly adequate reasons” for the housing requirement against carbon reduction.

Richard Honey, representing the council, said the loss of power over future decisions was a material planning consideration.

He added: “The arguments don’t have any evidential basis at all.”

Mrs Justice Lang said the intervention by the Secretary of State was lawful and that he acted responsibly.

In her ruling, she said: “Councillors suggested they were under pressure to adopt the plan and were faced with no real choice.

“It was made clear to councillors that they had a choice and could choose not to [adopt the plan].

“The cabinet member for planning confirmed this was the case.

“ She said they were faced with no real choice, which reflected the practicality of the situation.”

The judge directed Bioabundance to pay the council’s costs of £8,266.

Nearly £15,000 had been raised by the company through an online fundraising page to help pay for its legal fees.

The company could appeal to the Appeal Court.

Cllr Roberts said: “It seems things are against us but we are considering whether to appeal.”

A council spokesman said: “The council remains confident it worked within the law to produce and adopt its local plan.

“The adopted local plan continues to have full weight in any planning decision made and remains the adopted policy of the council.”

The council revealed earlier this year that it is thinking of producing a joint local plan with the Vale of White Horse, which would take up to five years. The existing plan will remain until a new one is approved.

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