AN EXTRAORDINARY government bid to ban an Oxfordshire council from making its own housing plans has prompted fears for the future of democracy.

The alarm was raised yesterday after Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick revealed he was considering taking power from Liberal Democrat and Green-led South Oxfordshire District Council and handing it to Conservative-led Oxfordshire County Council.

The unprecedented move is the latest chapter in a battle between Mr Jenrick and the rainbow coalition council.

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Mr Jenrick started the fight in October when he suspended South Oxfordshire District Council’s power to talk about its Local Plan.

This was over fears that the elected Lib Dem and Green leaders planned to scrap the plan and replace it, as they were concerned about overdevelopment of the rural area.

But there were concerns this could risk millions of pounds of government funding for all of Oxfordshire which was tied to the plan going ahead.

Witney Gazette:

Now, after months of letters back and forth, Mr Jenrick has said he ‘minded’ to give power over the plan to the Conservative-run Oxfordshire County Council.

The county is now is due to vote on accepting this responsibility – if Mr Jenrick does decide to offer it – at a meeting next Tuesday.

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Residents of South Oxfordshire elected the Lib Dems and Greens to scrap the Local Plan as it proposed 28,500 new homes in the area by 2030.

Some of them have now called the government’s latest proposals undemocratic.

Witney Gazette:

Robert Jenrick.

Ian Ashley, a resident of Garsington, said: “It is undemocratic. The plan was created by the previous Conservative administration and that was one of the fundamental reasons for a change in the leadership at the council: so they could take more cognisance of the environment and also to protect the green belt.”

Mr Ashley, who runs a campaign called ‘A Better South Oxfordshire’ added: “To me, this looks like a political move from the officials that were elected to wrestle with the challenges around this plan and effectively moving that to a Conservative authority that will then push the plan through.”

Maddy Rigault, of Nuneham Courtenay, said she thought defending the plan was ‘all about’ protecting the money signed off for big projects across the county.

This includes the £215 million Oxfordshire Growth deal which will help fund new homes and roads, as well as a £218 million pot of money from the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund, which will help ease congestion in Didcot by building new roads.

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Part of the conditions behind these two funds was for every council in Oxfordshire to agree their new local plans, which will help to meet the city of Oxford’s housing need by building on protected green belt land, as well as a growth target of 100,000 new homes in the county.

Ms Rigault added: “It is unlikely that if these new homes are built in the green belt they will be knocked down, but what I fear for even more as a resident is the undemocratic precedent from the government here.”

SODC Green councillor Sue Roberts said giving control over the plan to the county council would be 'outrageous'.

She said: “It’s absolutely outrageous that a democratically elected group, elected in order to prove the over-development in this plan, should be overthrown in favour of giving it to a Conservative group who will push it through.

“The county council does not have the expertise in planning arrangements in our district.”

Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran has criticised the government’s decisions but is also seeking a solution.

Witney Gazette:

Layla Moran.

Ms Moran said: “It would be a great shame if locally-elected councillors, voted in on a clear mandate by local people, found themselves overruled by central government when it comes to local housing. I hope the government is considering the ramifications of this very carefully indeed."

During parliamentary questions to Mr Jenrick on January 14, Ms Moran asked him to meet face-to-face with Sue Cooper, the Lib Dem leader at SODC, and 'develop a plan in everyone’s interest.'

He agreed, but no meeting date has been set yet.

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Ms Moran said she hoped the meeting would ‘happen sooner rather than later.’

SODC’s elected council leaders were given legal advice they should not discuss the plan when the suspension began in October.

Oxfordshire County Council will meet at 10.30am at County Hall in Oxford on Tuesday.

It is also due to discuss the draft budget for 2020/21 at the meeting.

MAIL'S VIEW: Local plan fiasco is an extraordinary affront to your rights as a voter