Dave Valler is Reader in Planning, School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes, and Chair of the RSA London and South East Branch. His research interests range across local and regional economic development, urban theory and politics, sub-national governance and policy, and science/hi-tech spaces. He has recently published research specifically on theoretical and practical planning and governance issues in the South East including questions of urban political dissonance (Territory, Politics, Governance 2018), local planning cultures and legacies (Planning Theory and Practice 2018), economic governance evaluation (Town Planning Review 2016), and planning for high-tech growth (Environment and Planning C 2014; Town Planning Review 2012).
On Wednesday 9th October 2019 Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick wrote to South Oxfordshire District Council directing that the council take no further steps in connection with its own Local Plan. This effectively prevented SODC from withdrawing the plan at a scheduled full council meeting less than 24 hours later. Reports of the subsequent meeting recorded the fury of councillors and residents alike who reacted with boos, shouting that the minister was acting like a ‘dictator’ (Oxford Mail, 12th October). Council leader Sue Cooper apologised to members of the public who attended the meeting only to find out they would not be allowed to ask questions, stating that “This last-minute move by the Government is an unacceptable intervention into local democracy”. Green Party council member Sue Roberts’ warning was more sonorous: “Mark this day, October 9th 2019; this is the date local democracy died”.
The letter from Jenrick followed the SODC Cabinet’s decision on 3rd October to recommend withdrawing the emerging Plan, in development since 2014. In local elections in May, SODC’s political composition had changed considerably with the Liberal Democrats and Greens displacing formerly very strong Conservative control. Under new leadership the Local Plan, which provides for 28,500 new homes to 2034 including in greenbelt areas, came under significant pressure. But this in turn jeopardised the £215m Housing and Growth Deal agreed between government and the Oxfordshire councils (jointly under the Oxfordshire Growth Board) in March 2018. As part of the Deal, the authorities undertook to build 100,000+ homes in Oxfordshire into the mid-2030s, and also to have all Oxfordshire’s Local Plans submitted for examination by 1st April 2019. So the potential withdrawal of SODC’s Local Plan represents a very real financial threat to the county, not to mention possible implications for a further £218m Housing Infrastructure Fund investment for transport infrastructure around the Didcot area announced in the 2019 Spring Statement.
Figure 1. A newspaper clipping from the Oxford Mail.
Of course these events have really significant implications locally, and say much about the reality of ‘localism’ in the contemporary context. Years of austerity have sliced local authority budgets and increased reliance on ‘deals’, through which central government implements contractual relations with councils and effectively sets the rules of the game. And the reality of central state direction could hardly be more transparent than in the terms of the SoS’s letter to SODC.
However, the point I want to highlight here is that this latest episode echoes forms of ‘urban political dissonance’ (Phelps and Valler, 2018) which have long been characteristic of Oxfordshire, and which perhaps find resonance elsewhere in the pressured context of South-East England. In Oxfordshire a fragmented institutional context marked by disparate spatial agendas has given rise to a form of sustained, institutionalised conflict marked by contradictory visions and policy incongruity. For 40 years or so there has been ongoing division around the growth of Oxford city, with the surrounding districts and county effectively constraining city expansion in favour of growth spread outside the Oxford greenbelt. Against this background SODC’s opposition to the growth deal agenda can be seen in part as a reassertion of long-held differences around spatial strategy, which has had critical implications for planning policy in the county and for the growth prospects of the city and the sub-region.
Further here, given the dissonant and conflictual history, it would seem that localism and the decentralisation/ devolutionary context has further licensed a distinctive ‘policy style’ in Oxfordshire which might be described as a localised form of ‘guerrilla governance’ (Perry & Heilmann, 2011). Guerilla governance implies that individual actors exploit a fluid and uncertain institutional and policy context to their own advantage, variously demonstrating agility, single-mindedness, creativity and defensiveness. Policy tactics are marked by opportunism, secrecy, calculation, experimentation, improvisation, manoeuvrability and manipulation (etc) – characteristics that have been transparently evident in local debates around unitary government for Oxfordshire (2014-17) and which may well resurface in current debates over a Joint Statutory Spatial Plan for Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire 2050) and in response to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc proposals.
Fascinating times in Oxfordshire, as ever! I’d be more than interested to hear of other South-East cases.
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Perry, E.J. Heilmann,S. (2011) Embracing Uncertainty: Guerrilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China. In Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, eds. Elizabeth J. Perry and Sebastian Heilmann: 1-29. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Phelps, N. A., & Valler, D. (2018). Urban development and the politics of dissonance Territory, Politics, Governance 6(1), 81-103.