Richard Webber Oxfordshire County Councillor

Still struggling to stay optimistic…
In a recent planning bulletin, I read that there is a Council in Yorkshire whose planning officers have advised their Council to delay their Local Plan because their future housing growth figures are on pre-Brexit assumptions. Living in an area such as ours, where we have been desperate (for more than 5 years) to get our Local Plan in place to protect us from yet more speculative planning, many will want to throw up their hands in despair.

 

Our Local Plan is based on assumptions about future housing growth which many of us have questioned for some time. Are we capable of building the number of houses assumed in the Local Plan? Do we have the builders and the bricks? What makes us think we can build at nearly twice the rate we have achieved at any time in the last 20 years? Now we are told that some of the experts believe that Brexit may mean the figures on which a Local Plan is based may be all wrong. Of all the possible impacts of Brexit, that one had not occurred to me. The Government has plenty to occupy it at present (and spare a thought for the civil servants being asked to run around in small circles in trying to work out the possible effects of Brexit). The possible effect on planning and housing is, I fear, one more thing they need to sort out as quickly as possible. Asking towns and villages to take a mass of housing for which there may not be the demand will not go down well.

 

And it isn’t just Government that has the headaches. Councils are settling down to worry about their next budgets in an atmosphere of unprecedented uncertainty. We may hope that the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement will not contain any nasty surprises. “No changes” seems to be the best we can hope for. No-one is expecting any good news. It is all too easy to get very depressed about the immediate future.
Ah well, we have the election of a President to look forward to….


Is there any future for Local Government in Oxfordshire?
The press releases are positiveiy flying and becoming more and more heated. Is this a measure of progress? Or is it a sign of panic?

 

The undeniable facts are these:
1. Both independent reports (commissioned at some public expense by County and District Councils) conclude that the status quo of 3 tier local government (parish, district and county) is not in the interests of Oxfordshire residents and that unitary government is the obvious way forward.
2. Both independent reports conclude that a stand-alone full-blown Oxford City Unitary Council is not likely to be financially viable.
3. Bickering between councils, with one side claiming that the other is poorly run or incompetent, does not go down well with the public. All involved need to remain dignified.
4. If we wish to maintain services as they are let alone restore any services lost as the result of recent austerity cuts - we need to capture the savings from going unitary as quickly as possible.
If residents are to come first in all this, it is essential that council leaders return to the table, stay at the table and do not leave the room until a solution has been worked out. It behoves us all to cajole, press and even demand this of our council leaders via Oxfordshire's parish councils, its business community, its educational establishments, its science community and all other stakeholders.
Residents can let their feelings be known directly to their councils and council leaders.

I suspect we have all had enough of referenda, but the future of Local Government in Oxfordshire is too important a matter to be left to council leaders and certainly too urgent for the status quo to persist much longer.

 

And so to Planning matters:
Planning (where houses are to go) is principally a matter for District Councils although transport, highways and education planning matters are the concern of the County Council. This current split responsibility is itself a powerful argument for unitary government. Because so much of my casework is the result of planning issues and grievances, I think it is reasonable to update everyone on the major issues.

Appleford - concerned about the encroachment of Didcot - affected by the landfill site, the recycling works and trains - very concerned to keep its rail station and get a few more trains running so that working people can actually use it.

Milton - very concerned about possible development in arguably unsuitable areas. - impacted by decisions and effects of the very successful MEPC.

Drayton - with its Neighbourhood Plan, better protected from speculative development than others - but even so, waiting to hear from the Planning Inspectorate just how well protected.

Marcham - having taken hundreds of new houses and more to come - struggling with the impact on its main roads and its air quality - fighting to get enough infrastructure to cope with its rapid growth.

Sutton Courtenay - last, but certainly not least. Due to more than double in size over a five-year period - largely as a result of speculative planning - affected by a thriving MEPC, an expanding Didcot - large new warehousing - a potential gravel pit - a recycling works and Didcot Power Station. I am quite sure that everyone in the area sympathises and is in support of a move to make Sutton Courtenay a "special case" by permitting an argument of "cumulative impact". If we cannot get this status for Sutton Courtenay, it is difficult to see anywhere in the County where we could.


I do not wish to spoil anyone’s holiday, but….

The desperate need for more houses seems to have allowed planning and development to have gone mad. There are unwanted applications in Milton, in Marcham, in Shippon, in Drayton and, of course, in Sutton Courtenay. Why “of course”? Because that village has been worse hit by speculative planning applications than any other in the County. In Sutton Courtenay and in Drayton, there is a possibility that roads will be dug up, only to be dug up again months later. In Marcham, there are pavements being constructed which are too narrow to use. Yes, we need more houses but with drastic shortages of infrastructure – roads choked, schools full, air quality reducing, are we putting them in the right places?

 

Worst of all the problems, our young people find it ever harder to afford home ownership. It is tough, even for an optimist, to stay optimistic.

At some point, Government is going to have to find a solution to the problem of building houses that people can afford. We are told that of a house costing £360,000, 1/3 goes to the landowner, 1/3 goes to the infrastructure (not enough, apparently) and 1/3 to the developer (most have fixed costs and fixed margins). It seems that it is land values that are at the heart of the problem and the whole problem has become tied up with the problems and challenges of agriculture.

 

Even the most ardent “Remainer” and supporter of the EU. would agree that the European Agricultural Policy does not work well and is badly in need of revision. Well, out of the EU, we have the opportunity to design something better. Small and tenant milk farmers have been suffering for years – many have been forced out of business. It cannot make long term economic and environmental sense that any country should import vast quantities of food from all around the world when it is perfectly capable of growing its own. To maintain consistency of supply, it is reasonable that farmers are protected from the vagaries of markets. There is nothing inherently wrong in agricultural subsidies. But food supply and land supply are not the same thing. I am all for subsidising farming. I am uneasy about subsidising land ownership.

As ever please do contact me with any Vale related queries contact details shown above.


Now is not the time to discuss the recent national events and how they may/may not effect local politics. Until things have settled down a bit, the short answer is that no-one knows what the impact will be. If my inbox is anything to go by, there has been plenty else to focus the mind.

 

Top of the list is grass cutting. In February, OCC was compelled by law to produce a balanced budget. Faced with escalating adult and child social care costs and austerity cuts from central government, very difficult choices had to be made. The problem with making further cuts to social services is that there is an extreme risk that by making further cuts, more people would fall into vulnerability in the next year or two - putting further pressure on future budgets. For this reason, I and an overwhelming majority of County Councillors of all political persuasions voted to look elsewhere to make the cuts that would allow the Council to produce a balanced budget. Reducing the number of grass cuts to one per year was one of the options agreed and this was announced in late February. Where, I believe, OCC went wrong was in starting the cutting too late. With this and an unusually good early spell of weather for grass growing, we now find ourselves with far too many grass verges heavily overgrown. The single annual cut has begun and I understand that all areas will be cut in the next few weeks. Some money has been set aside to deal with those areas deemed to be unsafe and I have relayed all concerns around road safety to the Highways team. We have to be aware that diversion from routine cutting will delay that cutting and I am leaving the safety experts to judge what the priority should be.

 

I do not like this situation and have already been pressing for cutting to begin earlier next year. Whilst I defend OCC’s decision to reduce grass cutting rather than cutting social care further, I, and others, have been working hard on trying to make sure that this situation does not exist for ever. That is the reason that gaining the savings made through going for Unitary Government in Oxfordshire is so important to me and why I have been pushing this so hard. I am hopeful that, by next month, I will be able to report real progress on the idea.


Beware the man with forked tongue.
The trouble with experts is they do not always agree. Even those employed to give independent, dispassionate advice to the decision-makers often give conflicting advice. There is a similar danger that the two firms, paid to advise us all on Unitary Government in Oxfordshire, may also wind up giving us conflicting advice The problem is compounded if the “experts” appear to have been “got at” by people seeking only the advice they wish to receive. This devalues the perceived integrity of independent advisors and, as with the EU Referendum, it leaves the decision-makers (in that case you and me) in a state of confusion as to whom to believe.

 

By the time you read this, the Referendum will most likely be done and dusted, but the one question I have been asked time and again over the last few weeks is “How can I believe what the experts say?”. Leaving aside the question of whether you and I are capable of making a decision requiring a detailed understanding of economics, the best answer I can give is – find the experts you trust most, and question their possible motives for giving the advice they are giving. At the same time look at the advice being given by those with least to gain or lose from any outcome. It is interesting therefore, that Vladimir Putin, Marie le Penne and Donald Trump all think we should vote to leave the EU. That advice, together with what I hear from most young people makes my decision as to which way to vote on 23 June much easier!

 

The same issue arises over Unitary argument. We are depending on Price Waterhouse Cooper, (employed by the District Councils to advise them) and Grant Thornton, (employed by the County Council to advise them) to give us genuinely dispassionate, independent advice on which way we should go. When asked by GT what I wished from their report, I was very clear that whatever they had to say, it must be independent advice based on their independent analysis. In my view the integrity of the whole process will be blown away if any Council is perceived to have tried to pre-judge or sway the consultants. I expect GT’s analysis to be scrutinised for independence and I will be doing my best to ensure that the PWC analysis is subjected to the same scrutiny.


 

Oxfordshire is one of the most economically successful counties in the UK with thriving growth - particular in the area of IT and Science. We have very low unemployment and we have very little crime. The Government (rightly in my view) recognizes the need to push for more housing, and this housing should go where there is most employment. Oxfordshire is thus a prime target for accelerating housebuilding.

 

Our problem is that Oxfordshire is deemed to be one of the most rural counties in Southern England. In our part of Oxfordshire, we have large swathes of Oxford Green Belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). The amount of land, which is not constrained by these areas, is quite limited. Hence the growth is happening in a very uneven manner. The areas around Abingdon and Didcot are being asked to take ever more housing, and our system of infrastructure (roads, schools, drainage, sewage and so on) is coming under ever more strain.

 

Whilst our Local Plan is not in place, there is a window for landowners and developers and they are having a ball. Applications are stacking up. In my county division, Marcham is due to expand more than 40% in the next few years, and Drayton (with a Neighbourhood Plan) by 20%, but nothing beats the pressure on Sutton Courtenay – due to expand by 100% and counting. Given that the same village has to cope with an expanding Didcot, a growing Milton Park, an imminent 90000sqm warehouse, the FCC recycling operation and Didcot B, it is hardly surprising that the village infrastructure is groaning, and the residents are increasingly depressed at the changes to their once beautiful and ancient village.

 

Thames Water has plans to dig up High Street, Sutton Courtenay to enlarge a culvert, so that the sewage system will cope with the 130 houses already being built -sensible planning, one would have thought. However, it seems that no account has been taken of the 300+ houses due to arrive if these speculative applications are granted permission (and history suggest that this is almost certain). The present system allows for this by arguing that the incremental impact of each development is just about acceptable and no account can be taken of the ones down the line.

 

Recognising this problem, the planning system does now pay lip service to the concept of “Cumulative Impact” of development. So far, cumulative impact has not been deemed to be sufficient to refuse a planning application anywhere in this area. It seems to me that, in the case of Sutton Courtenay at least, Government and Councils of all types should urgently consider allowing a “cumulative impact” argument to be used to challenge and refuse further speculative development in that village at least or until, plans are in place to allow the delivery of infrastructure to catch up with development and one day, match it.  If there is not the will to do it in Sutton Courtenay, I fear “cumulative impact” in planning terms has no meaning.