Planning decisions on two housing infrastructure projects (HIF projects) are to go in front of district planning committees “in the next couple of months”.
The two major road projects are designed to support more than 30,000 new homes in Oxfordshire.
Councillor Duncan Enright (Lab, Witney North & East), who is responsible for the county’s travel and development strategy, provided the update on the HIFs for Didcot (HIF1) and Witney (HIF2).
The multi-million-pound proposals have divided opinion and proved difficult to deliver amid budgetary concerns, particularly against the backdrop of rampant inflation.
HIF1 is the housing infrastructure programme for Didcot Garden Town, delivering around 12,000 new homes to the south of Oxford.
The £296 million project includes proposals for a dual carriageway, a new road bridge, a river crossing linking Didcot to Culham and a bypass for Clifton Hampden.
HIF2 is a £106 million programme to improve the A40 between Witney and the north of Oxford, supporting the building of more than 20,000 new homes.
It was placed “under review” by the county council in December 2022 amid concerns that spiralling costs could make the scheme undeliverable.
Objectors to HIF1 used that as a lever to try to get the Didcot plans stopped before Christmas but to no avail.
The financial worries of both projects were raised during this week’s meeting of the Performance & Corporate Services Overview & Scrutiny Committee at Oxfordshire County Council, with Councillor Enright elaborating on the progress made.
“I had a meeting just this morning (Thursday) about HIF1,” he said. “We are approaching quite important points on HIF1 and HIF2, determining the planning applications.
“They have been in for what feels like forever, but they are about to be determined in the next couple of months, and that will have quite a significant impact on the progress of those projects.
“We looked at the timeline for HIF1 this morning, and everything is going as we expected it to, with planning permission being determined next month or the month after, certainly within the next few weeks.
Read more: Council issues statement on HIF2 A40 improvements programme
“Other works, particularly the CPOs (compulsory purchase orders, enabling the council to acquire the required land) and Side Road Orders being issued to landowners in the next few days and weeks.”
Planning decisions are dealt with at the district level, with HIF1 subject to permission from South Oxfordshire District Council and HIF2 subject to permission from West Oxfordshire District Council.
As part of HIF2 being placed under review, its CPOs had to be withdrawn because the council could no longer state with confidence that the scheme was fully funded, but Councillor Enright said they would “be coming back to cabinet next month”.
The county has already allocated up to £30 million of borrowed money to top up the HIF1 fund, and Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the county’s cabinet member for finance, reiterated this week that any extra pressures would have to be dealt with through cutbacks rather than additional funding.
Read more: No more extra funds to see through Didcot’s HIF1 project
He added: “There is significant contingency built into the HIF projects. The intention is that when we move to the next stage, which will be the point at which we can test market pricing against the proposed schemes.
“That will be the point at which we have the best view of whether or not any inflationary pressures can be managed or what changes might need to be adopted.”
Councillor Enright added: “Our team is absolutely laser-focused on this as one of the top risks because of the high level of inflation, alongside the availability of staff and materials. Supply lines have been disrupted, so we know that is an issue too.
“The mitigations come in signing contracts with the contractors who manage this for us. We effectively pass part of this risk over to them, but we are still very alive to the fact that a risk remains.”