A health trust seeking to develop a 20-acre green site at Oxford's Warneford Hospital has received a major boost from city planners.

Council officers are to recommend that the scheme should be supported in principle, when plans finally go to the city council's strategic development control committee next week.

The news has infuriated campaigners battling to save Warneford Meadow from being developed as "a student village".

The Friends of Warneford Meadow handed a petition signed by a thousand people to Oxford Lord Mayor Jim Campbell on Saturday, objecting to the development of the meadow and an orchard.

But the group had hoped officers would take their lead from councillors on the north east area committee, who had voted against the scheme.

In January, ocal councillors passed a motion to refuse permission on the grounds that brownfield sites were available, which should be built on before one of Headington's last open meadows.

Stephen Tall, the Headington councillor who moved the motion, expressed disappointment that the vote of local representatives is to be ignored.

He said: "The steer from our committee was that a compelling case had not been made by the trust. But we accept that officers have an obligation to give what they see as the best advice."

Council planning officer Murray Hancock says in a report that the sensitivity of the site should be balanced against the "acute needs" of Oxford's two universities and hospitals for accomm- odation.

Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust hopes to provide accommodation for about 680 students and 320 key workers, with offices and research facilities.

The Friends of Warneford Meadow are now pinning their hopes on trying to have the meadow registered as a town green.

They have won the backing of the Open Spaces Society. Its general secretary Kate Ashbrook, speaking at a public meeting at Cheney School, said: "The meadow is a vital lung of tranquillity in an urban area.

"It qualifies as a green because the local residents can prove that they have used the land for recreation for 20 years, without asking permission."