Michael Tyce, of the Oxfordshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, dissects the Oxfordshire Growth Plan
IS THE Oxfordshire Growth Plan your vision for the county? As long as Oxford has an expansionist city council there will be tension between its long-standing aim to sprawl out over the surrounding countryside, and the Green Belt, which was created specifically to contain it within its present boundaries.
For at least half the time since the Green Belt was created 66 years ago, the city council has been trying to breach it; its 1981 plan sought to annex neighbouring councils’ land as far as Woodstock and Abingdon to the north and south and Horspath and Cumnor to the east and west.
The latest more subtle expansion schemes, from URBED and Centre for Cities, and supported by Oxford’s own civic society, are for large satellite suburbs on Green Belt land, on the main arteries out of the city.
This is exactly the kind of ribbon development which created the awful sprawling conurbations of the first half of the last century, and which Green Belts were specifically created to prevent. Is it unduly cynical to note that the Centre for Cities report is sponsored by housing developers L&Q and Barratts?
This is a life and death struggle for the Green Belt as the land once built on can never be replaced, and the gaps between these satellite suburbs would all too quickly be filled in.
The driver behind this new and most dangerous sign of the city council’s expansionist tendency is the Oxfordshire Strategic Economic Plan – really a growth plan by another name.
Spawned by the Local Enterprise Partnership – an unelected quango – this is about a scheme to create 85,000 new jobs across Oxfordshire to be filled by incomers to the county, who would need to be provided with houses, many of which will be built in new suburbs in the Oxford Green Belt.
There are at least three fallacies with this scheme.
The first is that these new jobs are purely notional. The assumption behind the Growth Plan is that creating new commercial and industrial premises will of itself cause new jobs to miraculously appear.
This is a naive view of the way jobs are created. They are a wholly inadequate basis on which to make firm commitments to an enormous growth in housing development.
The second is that it does not need to be a choice between what housing actually may be needed and preserving the Green Belt. Of course, it would be possible to build over the Green Belt or over National Parks for that matter, although it would be environmental vandalism to do so.
The Green Belt is targeted by the city council because the Green Belt surrounds the city and building on it would therefore satisfy the council’s long-term expansionist aims; and, more mercenarily, because the city council is itself a major Green Belt landowner and would profit financially from development – as would the university colleges.
The third is that Oxford could not possibly be the core of a far larger urban area. Oxford is a medieval city, with street patterns dictated by the rivers and floodplains that run through it, and the historic buildings which are a key mainstay of the tourist economy.
It is simply laughable to think it could be the core of an even greater conurbation when long before that it would have ground to a standstill altogether. It is worth remembering that one of the key reasons for the Oxford Green Belt was to protect the historic city from unsustainable development.
Despite all these obvious flaws, over the next 20 years the growth plan aims to transform our presently rural county with artificial population growth, fed by inward migration, to take up (notional) new jobs, driving a 40 per cent increase in housing stock across the county, and putting Oxford’s Green Belt at risk of destruction from urban sprawl.
You may think that at least this will make houses less expensive. No, not even that.
Even the last Government’s advisers accepted that no conceivable amount of house building would stop house prices increasing, and the experience of Cambridge, which has dismantled much of its Green Belt to try just that, only goes to prove it doesn’t work.
The extra house building proposed in the growth plan is in any case matched by new people coming into the county to live in them.
Despite the magnitude of the harmful change that the growth plan would make to all of us, the public has not been asked whether it shares this vision for Oxfordshire, presumably because it is clear what the response would be. It is long past time for an open public debate about whether the growth plan is your vision for the county.