By Giles Lewis, chairman of Cherwell Development Watch Alliance, an association of five local resident groups in north Oxfordshire.

We seem to have a new Conservative government that has declared 'open season' on the Green Belt.

This is despite the party`s explicit undertaking on page 31 of its December manifesto to ‘protect and enhance the Green Belt’ and Esther McVeigh’s promise as Housing Minister last September to look at ‘every blade of grass …and it is only in the most exceptional of circumstances we turn there’.

There have been many other recent pledges made by the Conservatives to preserve the Green Belt which only makes it the more extraordinary that it is the recently elected Lib Dem/Green alliance – which overturned the Conservative majority on South Oxfordshire District Council – that has been doing its level best in the teeth of government opposition to re-think their council`s housing plan and inter alia save its Green Belt from the developers. The current Conservative Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, has made the unusual decision that he could use his powers to override the council and impose his diktat on their Local Plan.

ALSO READ: Coronavirus latest in Oxfordshire

Another district council here in Oxfordshire, Cherwell, still has a Conservative majority. The latest iteration of its Local Plan proposes no less than 4,400 new houses in close proximity to Oxford, all of them on the Green Belt. This is despite some of these houses, in the council`s own assessment, causing 'high harm' to what remains of it. And this is on strategically sensitive Green Belt in relation to Oxford`s setting. For Cherwell, the Green Belt has been their first resort for development, not the last as required by national guidance on planning. The Labour minority on the council is opposing the location of all these houses. There has also been ‘unprecedented opposition’ – Cherwell`s own words – from local residents, from the four local parish councils, from all six local district councillors, from the area`s Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran, and from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, all of it effectively being ignored.

While this opposition was in the course of being expressed, Alok Sharma, then Minister of Housing & Planning, said in Parliament (on October 30, 2017), “We are committed to retaining the current Green Belt protections. There may be exceptional circumstances in which a local authority chooses to amend its green belt, but it has to take its local community with it.”

The plans for building on the Green Belt from both these district councils is in response to a requirement to consider how they might help meet Oxford City`s 'unmet housing need'. Ironically, Oxford City Council is Labour-led, meaning that Cherwell`s Conservative majority and the Conservative secretary of state are pushing hard to build on Oxfordshire`s Green Belt in response to a Labour city council`s requirements – despite the Conservative`s manifesto pledges.

This all very strange. What is more, the Conservative manifesto also pledged to ‘prioritise brownfield development’, something Oxford City Council has failed to do in its own Local Plan, leaving empty industrial sites unused and prioritising the sites it does develop for offices, leaving its neighbouring councils to pick up the pieces on housing.

Conservatives are supposed to conserve. It is one of the party's perceived core values. It is arguable that the regime change from the Conservatives on South Oxfordshire`s council came from normally conservative-leaning residents objecting to what they saw as excessive housing plans. These plans were driven by Oxford`s so-called Growth Board, an un-elected body which was then chaired by the Conservative leader of Cherwell District Council.

ALSO READ: Big ‘thank you’ to a community hero working around the clock from her kitchen-table

Residents in the area of Cherwell district which will lose its Green Belt also rebelled on housing issues last year, returning Lib Dems and a Green instead of Conservatives but not enough to sway the political lean of the whole council. Last year, too, our Lib Dem MP Layla Moran was returned to Parliament with a greatly increased majority in what used to be a marginal seat, Oxford West and Abingdon, normally a close fight with the Conservatives.

As an alliance of five local groups, we have been trying hard to resist the ‘Concreting Conservatives’ (as they are known in South Oxford) from building too many houses in the wrong places; unaffordable houses at that, despite initial promises to the contrary by developers. But our arguments made through the planning examination system have been ignored by national Inspectors. Robert Jenrick`s directive to South Oxfordshire may indicate the reason. His letter to the council of March 3 threatens ‘further intervention action’ in the event the Plan ‘should fail at Examination’ by the Inspector. It seems that the secretary of state for housing is so thoroughly invested in Oxfordshire`s Local Plans that he will override both local democracy and planning process to ensure the Growth Board gets its houses.

The Conservatives need to be careful. Their impressive national mandate could very quickly be eroded through inconsistencies that strike at the root of their rural support. The left hand of their manifesto does not appear to know what their executive right hand is doing. Disturbing subversions of local democracy are taking place.

It will not be forgiven. Over 75 per cent of Oxfordshire`s residents support protection of the Green Belt and believe it should remain open and undeveloped. We will lose our Green Belt, our open countryside, our wildlife, our historic village identities, and our communities. These are quintessentially of value to conservatives, all the more so in the current climate emergency.