Bob Price, Leader of Oxford City Council writes about the Green Belt

Michael Tyce of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, writing in the Oxford Mail (November 13), makes some surprising claims. He says that as an “expansionist council”, we have a long-standing aim to “sprawl out over the surrounding countryside and Green Belt”.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We have published successive Local Plans that provide strong protection to countryside and open space in Oxford, and ensure that the setting of the city’s historic core remains intact. Recent years have seen almost nil housing completions in Oxford built on greenfield land.

But when it comes to new housing, the facts of the matter are clear. We simply have not been building nearly enough to ensure that Oxford continues to be a thriving city with strong communities and a growing economy, and this is down to the fact that the administrative boundaries of Oxford are tightly-drawn around the city’s built-up area.

After land at Barton West and the Northern Gateway has been developed (which together will provide about 1,400 new homes), there is little land left in Oxford that is available to build on without seeing significant reductions in urban open space for recreation, or impacting on the quality of the built and historic environment.

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Independent consultants commissioned by the city council have found that we may achieve in the region of 10,200 new homes in Oxford in the period 2011-31. But this is still nowhere near the 28,000 or so new homes that are needed.

Mr Tyce questions whether this many houses are actually needed, and suggests that we should be discouraging further economic growth. It is perhaps notable that those who argue against providing more housing tend to already own their homes and have a good job and/or healthy income, yet put forward arguments that are tantamount to denying others these same opportunities. Nevertheless, there is a two-fold response to Mr Tyce’s argument.

Firstly, potentially half would be affordable and key worker housing. That is, housing for nurses, teachers, police officers, technicians, firefighters, and most importantly for families and individuals from all walks of life who have their roots in Oxford but simply can no longer afford to live in their local community.

Secondly, Oxford is, for the moment, a world-class university city that serves as a powerhouse of knowledge, innovation and economic growth.

There is growing recognition of the critical impact that lack of housing is having on the ability of the city’s two universities, its hospitals, clinical research units, and engineering and manufacturing sectors to recruit staff at all levels.

Together with Oxford’s global profile, the universities and knowledge economy unique to the city attract foreign investment and opportunities for ‘spin-out’ businesses. The sum effect is that Oxford is one of the lead drivers in ‘UK PLC’. Yet the University of Oxford is in danger of losing its status as one of the top-ranking universities if the supply of housing needed to maintain its staff and skills base does not improve.

Also central to the problem is the growing pressure on Oxfordshire’s transport infrastructure.

The city of Oxford provides about 35 per cent of the county’s jobs but only 24 per cent of its housing. The 2011 Census showed that 46,000 of Oxford’s jobs (almost 50 per cent of the total) are held by workers commuting into the city on a daily basis. Over the last 10 years, the number of car-bound commutes to Oxford has increased by 10 per cent – to over 30,000 per day – and this trend can only continue so long as workers are pushed out into housing located beyond the Green Belt.

The impact this would have on a network of already chronically congested roads that, from the county council leader’s own analysis is at “breaking point”, is clear.

To meet the unmet housing need for Oxford would require less than one per cent of the Oxford Green Belt to be given over to housing. This in practice looks nothing like the sprawling conurbation that is spuriously suggested by Michael Tyce; rather it would provide opportunity to create exemplary, sustainable city suburbs that provide a great living environment and remarkable gateways to the city. Should proof of this be required, one only need consider that the city’s planned Barton Park garden city suburb just last week won the award for Planning for Housing Growth at The Planning Awards 2014. When there is so much at stake – our communities’ desperate need for housing, the future health of our city’s economy and universities, and the need to prevent further deterioration of our transport networks – this is a very small price to pay.

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