A public inquiry has been called on a controversial flood prevention scheme in Oxford which has drawn thousands of complaints over its effect on the environment and rare grassland.

The Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme, which would see a five km long stream dug through the floodplain in the west of the city, will be examined by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs after an inquiry was called by Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey following objections from consultees.

The £176 million scheme by the Environment Agency, working together with partners including Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford City Council, and Oxford University, is intended to divert flooding away from homes, businesses, services, and major transport routes.

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An Environment Agency spokesman said: "We are confident in our evidence as to why the scheme as presented is the best option for reducing flood risk in Oxford and welcome this independent process so that all sides have a fair hearing."

Controversy surrounds the scheme's effect on Hinksey Meadows, an area of grassland in North Hinksey which contains the nationally rare MG4 grassland.

Oxford Mail: Sunrise at Hinksey Meadows

Chris Sugden is the convenor of Hinksey and Osney Environment Group which objected to the scheme’s impact on the meadows.

He said: “We’re very pleased it is going to an inquiry because that is what’s needed.

“Eighty per cent of the scheme is good. We’re not in opposition to the scheme itself but we’re saying this part of it is not necessary.

“These are grasslands that have never been ploughed in human history. If we’re talking about preserving and caring for the environment, it would mean protecting this grassland.

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“People survive in Oxford because you can get out of the city quickly and go out walking by yourself or with a dog on fields like this and this scheme would wreck it completely.”

Nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition objecting to the scheme cutting through Hinksey Meadows.

Oxford Mail: A map of the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme

Evelyn Sanderson, who started the petition, said: “Oxford desperately needs an effective flood scheme but a destructive and ineffective three-mile flood channel through the rare Hinksey Meadows would wreck the local environment and could cause biodiversity collapse in Oxford’s wildlife corridor.”

The scheme, which has been submitted for approval to Oxfordshire County Council, would be one of the biggest flood schemes in the country if it was approved.

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The inquiry has been called because one or more of the statutory consultees objected and requested a public inquiry.

Oxford Mail: Janet Keene and Tim King count of snake's head fritillaries in Oxford during the 2015 survey. Picture: Richard Cave

As part of the proceeding, an inspector, appointed by the planning inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State, will listen to every person who has made a remaining objection.

DEFRA wrote to the Environment Agency on Wednesday, June 7, to ask for suitable dates to hold the inquiry.

The planning inspectorate will also need to appoint a suitable inspector before dates can be arranged.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: "Oxford has a long history of flooding, damaging homes and businesses and closing the railway and major roads into the city. The Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme is a long-term solution to help the city adapt to our changing climate and make it more resilient to floods. 

"A Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) is a legal process that allows land, property and rights of access to be acquired from a landowner where there is a compelling case that the land is needed in the public interest. The Environment Agency made the CPO for the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme on 16 February 2023, and all affected parties were invited to submit any objections. 

"Whilst many residents and businesses in Oxford support our proposals we understand and appreciate that there are members of the community who do not share these views and have objected to our CPO. The CPO Public Inquiry, formally confirmed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Wednesday, is standard procedure when objections are received and will provide an independent inspector to hear the cases for and against the scheme before making a recommendation back to the Secretary of State on whether or not the CPO should be confirmed. 

"We are confident in our evidence as to why the scheme as presented is the best option for reducing flood risk in Oxford and welcome this independent process so that all sides have a fair hearing. We will continue our negotiations with landowners in order to attempt to resolve as many concerns as possible prior to the CPO Public Inquiry.

"The CPO Public Inquiry is expected to be held later this year. It will be similar to a planning inquiry and run by the Planning Inspectorate. Once a date for the CPO Public Inquiry has been confirmed, this will be publicised on the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme website at https://consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/thames/ofas-updates/ We will provide regular updates on our website throughout the public inquiry process, including where the inquiry will be held and how long we expect it to last."