Local Plan to build homes, tackle the climate emergency, support communities and create new jobs agreed by Planning Inspectors

Published: Tuesday, 19th May 2020

Oxford’s Local Plan to build more genuinely affordable homes, tackle the climate emergency, create stronger communities and support the economy has been agreed by independent Planning Inspectors.

Following years of evidence gathering, several rounds of public consultation, and a thorough and independent inspection process that included public hearings in December, the Oxford Local Plan 2036 has now been found sound by the Planning Inspectorate of England and Wales with the modifications that were consulted upon earlier this year.

The Planning Inspectorate, which is impartial and objective, implements the Government’s aims of sustainable development through shaping positive local planning. It examines whether or not Local Plans are ‘sound’ – i.e. whether or not there is compelling evidence underpinning each policy, and whether or not each policy meets national planning guidelines.

The Local Plan now only needs to be approved by the City Council’s full council before it becomes the new framework underpinning all planning applications in Oxford over the next 16 years.

A full council meeting to discuss the Local Plan is scheduled for Monday 8 June.

Oxford Local Plan 2036 includes:

  • Defining where nearly 11,000 new homes will be built within Oxford’s boundaries
  • Ambitious carbon reduction policies that, using incremental increases, will see all new residential developments constructed in Oxford be zero carbon by 2030
  • Focus of town centre uses on the city centre, district and local centres – including Cowley Centre, Summertown, Headington, East Oxford (Cowley Road) and Blackbird Leys – to both increase the density and height of buildings, and strengthen neighbourhoods by encouraging new community, leisure and cultural assets
  • Protecting and enhancing both Oxford’s heritage, particularly the historic buildings within Oxford city centre, and the city’s vital network of parks, open space and waterways
  • Supporting business by encouraging the modernisation and intensification of Oxford’s existing science and business parks

The approval that the Oxford Local Plan 2036 is sound came in a final report from Planning Inspectors Jonathan Bore and Nick Fagan.

In their report, Mr Bore and Mr Fagan said: “Oxford is a busy, successful city and the Plan seeks to strike a balance between the needs of its many important land uses such as housing, employment, educational, recreational, community and other uses, whilst at the same time protecting the character of the city.”

Oxford residents can read the full report from the Planning Inspectors by visiting: www.oxford.gov.uk/oxfordlocalplan.

If anyone has difficulty in accessing the Inspectors’ Report online then they can contact Carolyn Ploszynski, Planning Policy and Place Manager, for assistance by phoning  01865 252847 or by emailing [email protected].

“Oxford is a wonderful city, with a beauty and a history that brings visitors here from all over the world.

“We are a centre of learning, research and innovation on a global scale, and we have much of which we can be rightly proud. But we are also a city where inequality is stark – where decent and affordable housing is out of reach for so many of our citizens, where the street you grew up in defines your life expectancy, and where poor air quality damages all our health.

“This new Local Plan determines the homes, jobs, community facilities and infrastructure for the next twenty years, striking the right balance between the different pressures that Oxford and its people face. It makes a priority of providing affordable new homes, and high quality jobs, so that young people can afford to live and work in their home city; it focuses growth and development on district centres, not just on the city centre, to make sure that shops, community centres and facilities are close to homes; and it prioritises walking, cycling and public transport to help tackle congestion and pollution on our streets.

“But, at the same time, the Local Plan aims to preserve what makes Oxford a fantastic place to live, work and visit: our world-famous heritage, our community, leisure and cultural facilities, and our network of parks, green spaces and waterways.

“A Local Plan needs to respect the city of previous generations while shaping the city of the generations to come. That is what this Local Plan aims to achieve.”

Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, Cabinet Member for Planning and Sustainable Transport

Tackling the housing crisis

Oxford is the least affordable place to live in the UK, with average house prices 17.2 times higher than average earnings.

But Oxford has already built up to the edge of its boundaries and – with the constraints of the Green Belt and flood plain – has run out of large development sites to build new homes.

The Planning Inspectors, in their report, said that the cost of housing in Oxford, the success of the city’s economy and the limited supply of new homes “have led to what can reasonably be described as a crisis of affordable housing need in the city”.

Some of the policies from the Local Plan to tackle the housing crisis include:

  • Identifying land within the city boundaries to deliver as much housing as possible – 10,884 new homes until 2036
  • Intensifying new development on previously developed land. For example, the Plan includes a minimum density of 100 dwellings per hectare in Oxford city centre and the city’s district centres
  • Requiring developments of 10 or more homes to build 50% as affordable, with at least 40% of the total homes being socially-rented/council homes
  • Allowing affordable homes to be developed by employers for their employees on specific sites. This would allow the NHS, schools, universities or large private-sector employers to build genuinely affordable homes for the exclusive use of their employees
  • Enabling new purpose-built student accommodation – crucial for turning private rented accommodation back into family homes – but restricting these for the first time to only be on or adjacent to existing university sites, or within the city centre or district centres. This will enable development sites within residential areas to be used for creating new homes.
  • Requiring 5% of the residential site area on sites of 50 or more homes to be made available for self-build plots

The Planning Inspectors said: “The situation in Oxford, with its stark inequalities and a very large and growing number of households unable to access market housing, clearly justifies the plan’s approach.

“The plan’s assessment of the overall housing need for Oxford, established at 1,400 dpa [dwellings per annum], is sound. The need is evidence-based and is founded on sound methodologies.

“It is important to emphasise that it has not been derived from Growth Deal assumptions, it is not a policy-based uplift, and it is not rooted in a circular argument. It is fully justified by the serious housing affordability issues in Oxford and the very clear inequalities of access to housing within the city.”

The Local Plan includes the allocation of seven small sites on the green belt and within Oxford’s boundaries for new homes.

The Planning Inspectors said: “All the circumstances point to the conclusion that exceptional circumstances exist at the strategic level to alter the defined Green Belt in suitable locations within the city’s boundaries to allow for the provision of homes to help meet the city’s housing needs.”

The Inspectors said these changes to the green belt “represent only minor encroachment into the countryside”, adding: “They would have little or no effect on the setting of the historic city. Yet in total they would provide the equivalent of 724 homes, making an important contribution towards meeting Oxford’s housing needs.”

The Inspectors also confirmed in their report that Oxford, due to its significant constraints, cannot meet all of its housing need within the city boundaries, and therefore supports the allocation of 14,300 homes in the Local Plans of neighbouring councils.

Oxford’s Planning Inspectors said: “The capacity of Oxford has been thoroughly scrutinised to ensure that it can accommodate as much of its housing target as possible. But it is clear from all the evidence that there are significant constraints on the city’s ability to accommodate further substantial amounts of new housing within its boundaries.”

They added: “Limiting the growth of the city would have serious effects on the ability to meet housing need, including affordable housing; attempting to meet Oxford’s housing and employment needs in locations further away from the city would encourage less sustainable movement patterns.”

Tackling the climate emergency

Oxford suffers from chronic air pollution caused by its constrained and narrow medieval road network, and – being built across two rivers – has suffered from devastating flooding in the past.

The former is being tackled by the Zero Emission Zone and Connecting Oxford, and the latter by the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme. However, for Oxford to tackle its carbon emissions the focus needs to be improving the quality of its buildings.

An assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions generated across different sectors in Oxford found that 81% of the total emissions comes from buildings, and residential buildings are the largest contributor to emissions at 29% of Oxford’s total emissions.

In January 2019, the City Council declared a climate emergency. This was followed, in September and October last year, with the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change.

One of the key findings of the Citizens Assembly was: “Assembly members firmly believed that it’s more cost effective if all new builds are built to sufficiently high standards, rather than paying the prohibitively high cost of retrofitting.”

Some of the policies from the Local Plan to tackle the climate emergency include:

  • An ambitious carbon reduction policy that requires new developments in Oxford to go 40% further than the national government targets on carbon emissions. This will rise to 50% after 2026 and, in the case of new residential development, zero carbon from March 2030
  • Support for energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings, such as retrofitting
  • Car-free developments where they are within a controlled parking zone, near regular bus routes and close to local shops. The aim is to reduce congestion and air pollution, while promoting walking, cycling and public transport. Growing and improving district centres also aims to reduce the need for private vehicles
  • Higher water efficiency standards for residential developments
  • Protect and nurture Oxford’s network of green spaces to secure biodiversity and wildlife corridors, and development that values and enhances Oxford’s green and blue spaces will be supported
  • Overall, the Plan aims to ensure Oxford has a net gain in biodiversity. For residential sites of 1.5 hectares and above, new public open space of 10% of the area covered by residential development is required

The Planning Inspectors, in their report, said: “Oxford is a focus for many activities but its centre is of great historic value and has many narrow streets which are busy with cyclists and pedestrians.

“Its ambition is to become a world-class cycling city with improved air quality, reduced congestion and enhanced public realm. To achieve this, there is a need to prioritise road space and promote sustainable transport modes.”

Supporting stronger communities

Oxford is a starkly divided city: Parts of Oxford are amongst the least deprived in the country, while other parts are amongst the most deprived.

The gap in life expectancy for men between the least and most deprived parts of Oxford is up to 16 years, and, after adjusting for housing costs, 29% of children in Oxford live below the poverty line.

Oxford also has the youngest median age (28.9 years) of any place in the UK, and has an unusually transient population.

Supporting stronger communities is therefore a key part of the Local Plan. Some of the policies include:

  • Existing communities facilities will be protected and retained – unless suitable and accessible alternatives are provided – and new developments that actively support and sustain the wellbeing of neighbourhoods will be encouraged
  • The Plan puts a greater focus on district centres to create hubs for neighbourhoods. Planning applications that enhance these hubs, including with new leisure, community and cultural activities, will be encouraged and supported
  • The Plan seeks to ensure that new larger residential developments provide a balanced mix of housing sizes and types, together with support for community-led housing and self-build housing, to deliver sustainable developments that will help create a wide range of opportunities to promote stronger communities.  
  • Major developments will be required to submit a Health Impact Assessment, which will assess the health impacts of proposals, and set out ways to maximise opportunities for promoting healthy lifestyles within new developments

Protecting and enhancing heritage

Oxford is a world-renowned historic city with a rich and diverse built heritage. It is highly recognisable by its iconic skyline and its architecture.

However, Oxford is also a dynamic city that must adapt and change. High-quality design is key to managing the change positively and ensuring the continued success of the city.

The Local Plan therefore encourages new, high-quality buildings within Oxford world-famous conservation areas – but only if these buildings respect and draw from the city’s heritage.

Similarly, Oxford’s world-famous skyline will therefore continue to be protected, but the Local Plan does allow for new higher buildings – if they are in the right location and make a positive contribution to design.

The Planning Inspectors, in their report, said: “The plan treats this subject [protecting Oxford’s historic assets] very seriously, addressing placemaking, views and building heights, heritage assets and archaeology and other relevant factors.

“There is no evidence that the plan falls short in according due weight to any of these issues.”

A vibrant and sustainable economy

Oxford has one of the fastest growing and best performing economies in the UK, and has one of the highest concentrations of knowledge-intensive businesses – e.g. scientific research and high-tech industry – in the UK.

The Local Plan has had to strike a careful balance between supporting the

the needs of its many important land uses such as housing, employment, educational, recreational, community and other uses, whilst at the same time protecting the character of the city.

No new land within Oxford’s boundaries has been allocated for employment in the Oxford Local Plan 2036.

The Plan will protect the most important employment sites in Oxford, such as Oxford Business Park, Oxford Science Park, Osney Mead Industrial Estate, Oxford North and the research and innovation work being undertaken in the healthcare sites.

These sites will be encouraged to modernise and intensify their activities to support the city’s economy and create clusters of data-driven, creative or high-technology industries.

Smaller employment sites that are not performing as well economically as others could – if it was deemed there was no longer a need for employment on these sites – be considered for converting into housing.

The independent Planning Inspectors, in their report, said “the Council demonstrated extensive and impressively detailed knowledge about site availability in the city”.

The Inspectors went on to say: “The plan’s allocations seek to meet housing needs as far as possible whilst also aiming to meet the needs of other important activities in the city, having regard to site characteristics and location.

“The argument that the submitted plan has prioritised employment land over housing does not, overall, bear scrutiny,” adding: “It is evident that, overall, the plan’s strategy does not exhibit an excessive bias towards employment land at the expense of housing land supply, as has been frequently alleged.”

The full Oxford Local Plan 2036, and the full report from the Planning Inspectors, can be viewed at: www.oxford.gov.uk/oxfordlocalplan.

If anyone has difficulty in accessing the Inspectors’ Report online then they can contact Carolyn Ploszynski, Planning Policy and Place Manager, for assistance by phoning  01865 252847 or by emailing [email protected].