Former county council planning officer David Young writes on how Oxfordshire could change for the worse.

Unless something changes, our county is sprawling towards the status of a suburb of London.

In the 30 years I was in charge of strategic planning in Oxfordshire until 2003, the county council produced a series of Structure Plans, balancing interests of growth, infrastructure and conservation. Successive Governments of both parties supported those plans, agreeing that the very special City of Oxford should not be allowed to grow indefinitely.

The subsequent abolition of county level Structure Plans, and then Regional Plans, leaves us as the only country in Western Europe to have no statutory strategic planning. The (not directly elected) Oxfordshire Growth Board seems concerned only with growth at the expense of the natural and built environment.

Currently the four district councils around Oxford have Local Plans at various stages, planning for 15,000 houses – many in the Green Belt - to accommodate Oxford’s ‘overspill’. They are based on an excessive ‘working assumption’ of Oxford’s housing needs. Oxford’s own Local Plan is only now out for consultation and uses an estimate of need that is almost double the Government’s own. Meanwhile, it has earmarked land within the City for employment rather than housing. Unsurprisingly, areas near to Oxford offer huge opposition.

Behind all this is a Government agenda for massive road and house building, unclear in its aims and with no meaningful public consultation. The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway is a ludicrous vanity project for which there is no sensible justification. It might mean building 300,000 extra houses in Oxfordshire – and at twice the highest historic rate.

Yet there is no effective mechanism to ensure that houses built will meet local needs. The large housebuilders that Government relies on, have a vested interest in keeping prices high – and Government policy so far (particularly ‘help to buy’) has simply fuelled demand (and housebuilders’ bonuses) rather than supply. The root of the problem lies in the selling off and non-replacement of Council houses. Lack of these is a large part of why Government has to spend £23bn annually on housing benefit.

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Local Authorities try to do their best in very difficult circumstances, but they have been sidelined by an increasingly centralised Government. Austerity has seen their budgets nearly halved; they are reduced to begging for scraps. The Growth Board claims success with a deal with Government for more houses in Oxfordshire in exchange for some £200 million, but this needs to be judged against the County’s estimate of an £8bn infrastructure shortfall. (If getting 3% of what is needed is success, I wonder what failure looks like!)

In the confusion, there is incoherent and contradictory policy. The promotion of the (‘motorway’) Expressway ignores the urgent need to cut carbon emissions – and could undermine East-West rail which Local Authorities have been working on for some years. Most are unhappy with the proposed reservoir that threatens much of the Vale of White Horse, but growth on the scale proposed could make it inevitable.

Government needs to reintroduce a statutory level of strategic planning under direct democratic control. It must drop its misguided intentions for the Expressway and ensure that development of plans for Oxfordshire is subject to effective environmental assessment and proper public consultation.

As they are all interdependent, the current Local Plans for the Oxfordshire Districts should be subject to a Joint Examination.

Meanwhile, Oxfordshire needs you to help stop the growth juggernaut.

Please make your voice heard.

Join environmental organisations.

Lobby your MPs and local councillors – and remind them that your vote will count!