RESIDENTS are facing defeat in their battle to stop a health trust from creating a 'student village' in Headington.

Oxford City Council planning officers say the controversial scheme to develop a 20-acre green site next to Warneford Hospital should go ahead.

And they are recommending that councillors accept in principle the proposals to create accommodation for 685 students and housing for 324 key workers.

But the co-ordinator of the Friends of Warneford Meadow group, Dr Boeles Sietske, feared the recommendation was not being made on planning grounds, but rather to help bring in millions for the local mental health trust that owns the land.

She said: "There is overwhelming unified local opposition to the development of this well-loved meadow which has been at the heart of the community for generations.

"We are astonished to see that the planners use a non-planning argument, but say that revenues of sales of the three sites involved will be used for improving mental health services. We are seeking advice and are considering putting in a complaint."

Six residents' associations are now backing an application made to Oxfordshire County Council to have Warneford Meadow registered as a town green.

A report to councillors said the sensitivity of the Warneford Meadows had to be balanced against the "acute needs" of Oxford's two universities and hospitals for accommodation.

It informs councillors that money from the sale would assist a backlog of hospital improvements, adding that the Warneford's current hospital buildings were "in large measure no longer fit for purpose, with a particular need to bring wards and other departments up to contemporary standards".

Key-worker accommodation on the site would go initially to local hospital staff unable to afford their own homes.

The report concludes that the loss of open space and replacement of open meadow with built development is not significant enough to warrant refusal. But it warns there would need to be restrictions on building heights, with landscape measures to mitigate the impact.

Residents' groups say that the scheme would seriously add to Headington's chronic congestion, in the aftermath of the JR's expansion, and the Radcliffe Infirmary's move to Headington.

The landowner, the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust, has made clear that it will not seek to undertake the development itself, but would put the land on the market.

At a public meeting at Cheney School this week, campaigners expressed doubts about whether up to £30m would be ploughed back into Oxfordshire mental health services, as the local trust has claimed.

Chris Dunabin, of the Friends of Warneford Meadow, said: "The officers' recommendation makes reference to the money improving local facilities. But there is simply no guarantee that this is going to happen. In any case, what happens to the money should be legally irrelevant to the planning decision."

The meadow, made up of grassland and an orchard, stretches between Headington and East Oxford.

The trust has also submitted planning applications to build 400 student units along with medical research and education buildings on the neighbouring Park Hospital site.

There is a further application to build social housing on a football pitch.

The city council's north east area committee, next Tuesday, and the strategic development committee, on January 31, are considering the schemes first in principle, because of the complexity of the five separate planning applications.

It means opposition to the development could continue at future meetings setting detailed planning conditions.

The importance of the site emerged last year when the Junior Health Minister Liam Byrne revealed that Warneford Hospital land was considered the NHS's sixth most valuable "immoveable fixed asset", worth £30.9m.