A plan to build more than 20,000 homes in rural Oxfordshire, championed by secretary of state for housing Robert Jenrick, is facing a legal challenge from residents who say it is incompatible with the government’s legally binding commitments to tackle the climate emergency.
Campaigners have issued a legal claim against South Oxfordshire district council’s decision to go ahead with the local plan – which sets out proposals to build 24,000 new homes in the area by 2035.
Jenrick, is accused of “massive intervention” to push the scheme through after he ordered South Oxfordshire district council to go ahead with the development in March.
Sue Roberts, director of Bioabundance which is taking the legal case, said: “This is the first time a local plan has ever been challenged because of our climate and ecological crisis. This pioneering action by Bioabundance is our last chance to put our environment before housebuilder profit in South Oxfordshire.”
The legal challenge is the latest attempt to stop major infrastructure projects – from a new runway at Heathrow to Europe’s biggest gas fired power station – which campaigners argue fail to meet the government’s legally binding commitments to tackle the climate emergency. Both challenges have faced recent setbacks in the courts.
Campaigners are challenging the Oxfordshire plan on the grounds that Jenrick’s intervention was inappropriate and that the proposed number of houses breaches the government’s legally binding commitment to hit net zero by 2050.
Leigh Day solicitor Tom Short, who is representing Bioabundance, said the claimants were concerned about both “the manner in which the plan has been forced through under enormous pressure from the secretary of state, and the detrimental environmental impacts it will lead to.”
“It is important that decisions of local authorities that have significant ramifications for the environment for years to come be taken in a free and fair manner, not dictated by central government as appears to have happened here,” he said.
Many of the new houses would be built on the outskirts of Oxford, and there are also plans to develop an old airfield into a ‘new town’.
Ian Ashley, director of Bioabundance, said: “The plan would destroy the countryside and a large part of the green belt around Oxford.”
The proposals were originally developed by a Conservative led council that was replaced in May 2019 by a Lib Dem-Green coalition that had campaigned to end “over-development”.
However, over a period of 21 months, the applicants say the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) put “severe pressure” on South Oxfordshire district council and threatened to withhold promised infrastructure funding for several other projects unless the local plan was adopted.
Final approval was given at the South Oxfordshire district council in December. But some councillors who abstained said Jenrick’s “massive intervention” meant it was not a free vote.
Roberts, who is also a local councillor, said there was no demand for new housing in the area. She argued the new developments would simply provide second homes, or international investment opportunities for the already wealthy, as well as worsening the climate crisis and “hastening the collapse of the natural world.”
However, Caroline Newton, a Conservative member on South Oxfordshire district council said new homes were desperately needed.
“There is a directly assessed need for houses in this area … we have got incredibly expensive house prices, first-time buyers are getting older and older and young families are being forced out of the area.”
The MHCLG declined to comment. A spokesperson for South Oxfordshire district council said: “We can confirm we’ve received a challenge by Bioabundance to the council’s decision to adopt the Local Plan 2035. We will be responding accordingly but we can’t comment further at this stage as this is a legal matter.”