8Eii/Oxford Green Belt Network (7022)

Written Statement of the Oxford Green Belt Network relating to session 8Eii, Housing and Green Belt (Central Oxfordshire)

The Oxford Green Belt Network (OGBN) represents principally the interests of the 60 or so parishes which make up the Oxford Green Belt. Many of their councils have asked us to say on their behalf that they wish to see no changes to the Green Belt and that they support the position of OGBN in this matter.

 

Since policies put forward in the South East Plan provide for legitimate housing needs to be met without incursions into the Oxford Green Belt we do not seek to deal with Questions 1, 2 and 5, but will concentrate in our Statement on the more geographical Questions 3 and 4.

Question 3: Has the potential for expansion of Oxford itself been sufficiently recognized? Is there a case for a strategic review of the Oxford Green Belt? (Policy CO3)

 

We take it that the first part of this question refers to the City’s potential to create new jobs, particularly in high tech and advanced service industries. We believe that this potential is sufficiently recognized and the issue is whether these new forms of employment can flourish as well outside the Green Belt as in the City itself. Research of which we are aware, and advice received from those who work in high tech, all point to the fact that these activities are just as successful at centres like Milton, Harwell and the other industrial estates and science parks beyond the Green Belt as they are in Oxford. Indeed, cheaper sites and less traffic congestion often make such sites more attractive. Existing sites in Oxford can serve the needs of start-up companies but there appears to be nothing inhibiting their growth if the expectation is that many will go on to seek manufacturing bases in other parts of the County. We assert that there is no evidence that economic development is held back in Oxford as a result of the Green Belt. Indeed it may well be argued that, because Oxfordshire’s environment is mentioned by many businesses as one of the County’s competitive advantages, and the Oxford Green Belt is an important factor in protecting that environment, it has actually enhanced the County’s economy and should be allowed to continue to do so in the future.

 

So far as the universities in Oxford are concerned, we believe that their future needs are being met by building student housing and by the redevelopment of the Radcliffe Infirmary site by the University of Oxford and of its Brookes campus by the latter university. Equally the growth of hospital services is being provided for by new building at the John Radcliffe and Churchill sites.

 

So far as the second part of the question is concerned, we believe strongly that there is no case for a review of the Green Belt. Such a review would risk cancelling out the achievements of Green Belt policy over the past 50 years. Policy CO3 sets out the 5 basic purposes of a Green Belt and all continue to be applicable to Oxford as we point out for each of them below:

 

Preservation of special character and landscape setting

The historic core of Oxford sits within a relatively narrow gap between hills to west and east. The City’s special character and its immediate landscape setting depend on maintaining existing open spaces on the edge of the City and the views across them of the famous spires. That is one reason why the inner boundary of the Green Belt had to be drawn tightly and must be retained.

 

We fully endorse the statement in paragraph 2.5 of the South East Plan that the landscape setting is also a broader concept taking in all the Green Belt countryside. To permit an urban extension or the large scale expansion of any Green Belt village would undermine this concept. The character and setting of Oxford depend on restraining the growth of activity in the Green Belt to prevent Oxford itself being overwhelmed by traffic and other pressures from beyond the present City boundary.

 

Checking the growth of Oxford

It was always the purpose of the Oxford Green Belt to check Oxford’s growth in both an economic and a physical sense. It has therefore played a vital town-shaping role, something that green wedges can never perform. The expansion of the motor vehicle industry was thus shared with Swindon and other towns, whilst the County Council’s policy of encouraging growth in settlements beyond the Green Belt has continued this strategy (Question 4, below). We believe the City has reached, some would say exceeded, its optimum size. Space at the centre is finite and further growth based on demands for housing and other forms of development will damage, not only the City’s surroundings but the historic character which is so cherished and which the Green Belt has enabled the City to develop and maintain.

 

Preventing coalescence

Oxford’s Green Belt is of limited spatial extent and many of its villages are separated from Oxford by only narrow gaps which it is the purpose of Green Belt policy to preserve. The identity of the Green Belt villages and their ability to sustain a wide range of social activities, depends on preserving their physical separation from Oxford. But they are under enormous pressure from landowners and developers seeking to establish special circumstances why the remaining fields between them and Oxford should be built upon. The EIP will be aware of these pressures from the number of developers seeking an opportunity to exploit the potential of particular sites, and all the villages feel highly vulnerable at the suggestion of a Green Belt review. Only a strong commitment to the integrity of the Green Belt will prevent the absorption of several of these villages into a greater Oxford.

 

Safeguarding countryside

It is impossible to reconcile the building of an urban extension to Oxford with the Green Belt purpose of safeguarding the countryside from encroachment. It is a feature of Oxford that there is relatively easy access to the countryside from both City and surrounding villages. Additional means of access are also being created, in line with government advice on health and exercise; witness CPRE’s new Oxford Green Belt Way. The Green Belt is the local countryside where people can spend a part of their everyday lives, easily and pleasantly, without the need for car journeys. Extending Oxford’s built-up area would inevitably reduce the possibility for sections of the existing population of enjoying this sustainable benefit of pedestrian access to the countryside.

 

Some will argue that the quality of the Green Belt landscape has been degraded, especially in parts of Oxford’s urban fringe, or that it is of little landscape interest.

This, of course, is irrelevant so far as the purposes of a Green Belt are concerned, as PPG.2 makes clear, and we hope that the landscape quality argument will carry no weight at the EIP. We also recognize that it is government policy to seek ways of enhancing the appearance of the Green Belt landscape when it has been degraded and the work of bodies like the Forest of Oxford, which undertakes tree-planting on sites close to the ringroad, is an illustration of what is going on both to restore the landscape and also, in this case, to offset pollution from vehicles. Other bodies are similarly engaged in conservation work, often prompted by parish plans which have highlighted the ecological importance and value of maintaining a green infrastructure in their particular section of the Green Belt.

 

Assisting urban regeneration

We acknowledge the City Council’s policy of carrying out urban regeneration in some of its older residential areas. This is on-going and will continue to be assisted by maintaining the Green Belt in its present form. Account should also be taken of the regeneration of the West End of Oxford, a partnership project led by the City Council, the County Council and SEEDA. Allowing development on the edge of Oxford is likely to damage the current impetus to regenerate the West End by diverting effort and resources away from this key area of the centre to the fringe.

 

It is our contention, based on the above, that the Oxford Green Belt continues to fulfil the 5 basic purposes of Green Belt policy. There are further reasons for resisting a review of the Green Belt.

 

When Ebenezer Howard published his visionary work of 1898 he drew attention to the separation of town and country and the need to achieve a new complementary relationship between the two. In this, the Green Belt encircling the garden city was to play an essential role. In the century or so since Howard wrote, the relationship between town and country has changed and the immediate surroundings of towns have experienced decentralising and other pressures unthought of in the 1890s. But, thanks to the Green Belt, the idea of town and country standing in symbiotic relationship, to the profit of both, has not been lost. But it is gravely threatened.

 

Oxford, like other places, has experienced huge pressure to move activities from the centre to the urban fringe. Pressures from outside the City, particularly for residential development, are equally strong. There have been incursions into the Green Belt because of these pressures but not yet so many as to undermine its fundamental purposes. Nevertheless the pressures, both from Oxford itself and from elsewhere, have not gone away and any suggestion that the Green Belt might be slackened is certain to unleash massive speculation. It is widely supposed that much of the Green Belt closest to Oxford has options to buy on it, unsurprising when farmland valued at £3,000 an acre can rise in value to well over £1 million per acre if permission to develop is forthcoming. There have been examples of land division and sale in anticipation of eventual permission to develop. Only a firm resolve to retain the Green Belt in its present form will stem this speculative tide which is so harmful to realising the objectives of the Green Belt for the 21st Century.

 

When the Green Belt was defined in the 1950s its boundaries were chosen so that it might fulfil the purposes of Green Belt policy. It was not intended to act as a land bank that could be drawn upon periodically to satisfy the development lobby or changing political circumstances. When a previous generation took up the government advice set out in Circular 42/55 they did so acknowledging the damage to Oxford’s surroundings of interwar sprawl and the even greater problems that would be posed to the historic city if this outward expansion were allowed to continue. To give way now to demands that the Green Belt be reviewed is to risk losing the benefits of past restraint. Restraint may not be popular these days, but it our case that this is the only way of protecting the distinctive character of Oxford and its landscape setting. We need also to make the point that adding land to the outer edge of the Green Belt whilst allowing land to be taken from the inner portion for development would equally defeat its purposes. The importance and function of the inner boundary must be fully recognized. Behind the suggestion that the Green Belt might be reviewed lies the wish to sacrifice some of it on this crucial inner edge to development. This cannot be reconciled with the intentions for the Oxford Green Belt expressed in Policy CO3.

 

Oxford is an historic city of world renown. PPG.2 singles out historic cities as being of special relevance where Green Belts are concerned. If there is one place where the Green Belt should be left unchanged, it is Oxford.

 

Question 4: How realistic is it to rely on focussing growth at Bicester, Didcot, Wantage and Grove? Are there constraints to focusing growth here, and if so how might they be overcome? (Policies CO1 and CO2)

 

OGBN fully supports the Core Strategy CO1 as we have supported over the years the County Council policy which seeks to share Oxford’s growth potential by distributing economic development more evenly amongst the other urban centres of the County. Of course there will be constraints at any one time, as is evident to anyone who has studied central place theory. In a growth situation it is impossible to achieve the perfect balance between population growth and the appropriate threshold level of service provision and of employment. But this is not a reason for giving up on the policy. Rather the answer is to plan for the infrastructure, jobs and services necessary to arrive at such a balance. In this way advantage will continue to be taken of the benefits to growth afforded by these other urban centres in the sub-region and the wider County.

 

We hope therefore that continued growth at Bicester, Didcot, and Wantage-Grove would enable these places to acquire a more advanced level of service provision, offsetting the pull of Oxford. The current tendency is for higher order services to concentrate in Oxford, partly at the expense of these towns, as we have seen in recent years in the case of hospital services where local provision has been lost or is under threat. The excessive pull of Oxford must be resisted if the City is not to dominate to a disproportionate extent the economic and social life of the County, leaving the other towns as collections of housing estates with low order warehousing employment and only basic service provision.

 

It is argued by those who seek to build housing on the edge of Oxford and in the Green Belt that it would reduce commuter journeys and thus be more sustainable. But the same if not greater benefits can be obtained by moving employment to the expanding towns of Bicester, Didcot and Wantage-Grove, reducing the need to travel to Oxford and, at the same time, achieving the benefits of growth for these places referred to above. In short, Oxfordshire must be thought of as a polycentric urban system within which the benefits of innovation at the core are allowed and encouraged to diffuse throughout the sub-region and beyond. The alternative is over-heating at the centre and associated problems over the years to come.