THE past month has seen three major announcements on how Oxfordshire should be developed in the coming two decades, including new homes, transport infrastructure and business premises. MATT OLIVER looks at the major challenges ahead
THERE are many different views on where developments in Oxfordshire should be built in the future.
But everybody in the debate agrees on one thing – that new homes, transport links and businesses are unavoidable.
The county’s population will continue to grow, surpassing 155,000 by the end of the decade, according to predictions from the 2011 census.
And more jobs in hi-tech industries are set to soar to new heights, with a possible 30,000 in line to be created from the space sector alone.
An expanding economy needs more homes for its growing workforce and politicians will be left with some tough choices to make.
Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth
Councils were surprised by the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), published in March, a study they ordered about future need.
This said Oxfordshire needs 100,060 new homes by 2031 compared to a planned 54,700.
It proposed 28,000 for Oxford alone but city councillors had planned for just 8,000 by 2028 and say 28,000 is simply not possible in a city constrained on its border by protected Green Belt land.
However, Oxford Civic Society has argued that although faced with major questions, we need not despair.
It has released a 37-page report examining what it says can be done, titled “Oxford Futures”.
The key issue, it says, is for the five councils who make planning decisions - Oxford, Chewell, Vale of White Horse and South and West Oxfordshire – to have a more joined up approach.
Currently each has to produce a “local plan” to set out where future development should go and all but Oxford’s are in the draft stage.
But the civic society wants a county-wide “planning commission” to create a single, county-wide local plan, mirroring a similar scheme in Cambridge (see panel page 9).
Oxford Futures' map of suggestions of possible transport and housing developments in Oxfordshire
Although land can be earmarked for development in local plans, a developer will still need to pay for and carry out the building and the civic society said these decisions should rest with individual councils.
The involvement of businesses, organisations like city universities and developers in the planning commission is therefore vital, it argues.
Chairman Peter Thompson said: “We need to start thinking about central Oxfordshire as not just the city but also the area around it.
“This report is essential reading for local planners, councillors, business and university leaders and all who will shape the future.”
Making decisions together is key, the report says, if the county is to get the most out of new jobs.
Dr Nicholas Falk, who compiled the report for the society, has called on politicians for a “vision” of the Oxford area that went beyond “short-term political gain”.
He said: “There are historic divisions between the city and the rural districts and that is a real problem.”
The proposed site for a 4,000-home development south of Grenoble Road is just one example. Labour-run Oxford City Council has long supported this plan and owns the land, close to the Kassam Stadium, along with Magdalen College.
But it falls within the South Oxfordshire District Council area and the Conservative-led authority has argued against using the site for housing.
Transport is another key consideration, the report says, and said developments should not be built unless links already exist.
The aim would be to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and use public transport or bicycles.
Mr Falk said: “At the moment, transport links to areas in South Oxfordshire, to places like Harwell, aren’t very good.
“But they will get better when things like track electrification on the railways is completed.”
The Government-backed programme of track electrification that Network Rail is currently putting in place is aimed at getting more seats on faster, greener trains.
The line between London and Oxford via Didcot is to be electrified by January 1, 2017.
Mr Falk added: “You have got to provide that good transport, so that you avoid everyone driving to work. Otherwise as things grow the infrastructure just becomes more congested. It is about choosing a smart way to develop.”
To complicate matters further, transport falls under the remit of Oxfordshire County Council, which does not make decisions on where house building should take place.
Because of this leader Ian Hudspeth said he wants the council to take the lead in the plans for the county’s future.
He said: “We have to, because we are the transport authority and we are the people who ultimately have to make decisions about where major infrastructure is going to go.”
Sorting out the city’s congestion woes is a major consideration and the Conservative has suggested a new tram system be brought into the city, possibly from Kidlington’s London Oxford Airport along with a new train station in Cowley.
A branch line to Cowley currently serves the BMW Mini factory for freight purposes but councillors have said it could also be used to link nearby business parks with the city centre.
Mr Hudspeth also wants to pedestrianise St Giles, from the Martyrs’ Memorial and George Street, home to Oxford’s theatres. Plans are already in motion to pedestrianise Queen Street for a redevelopment of the Westgate Centre.
When asked if he thought the ideas were far-fetched, Mr Hudspeth said: “In respect of the Cowley branch line, the infrastructure is already in place so it is a realistic prospect. And a mass transit system like the trams is something that we do need, not just in Oxford, but in Oxfordshire as well. We could develop it right across the county.’’ Mr Hudspeth has said he did not agree with the civic society that new housing developments should rely on existing transport links alone.
New developments are good reasons to build new links, he said, though schemes should be finished before people move in.
Mr Falk said: “In the report there are few specific examples of places we would suggest for development.
“That is because we want the commission involving everyone to discuss those things.”
But one radical suggestion in the Oxford Futures report is to look again at building on the Green Belt.
But only time will tell how long the Green Belt can last in its current form, or if Oxford is ever to see any of the new transport schemes it so badly needs.
One thing is made clear by the report: Oxfordshire’s leaders need to find the answers to these questions and seize the initiative before developers, spying a vacuum, try and make them for them.
MODELLING VISION ON A GERMAN SUCCESS STORY
A tram in Freiburg
- South German city Freiburg was also looked at in the report because of its modern tram network and sleek public spaces.
- Because of home building along the tram system, 84 per cent of residents live within 250 metres of tram stops.
- Instead of terraced homes with gardens, there are blocks of apartments and flats built around open green areas.
Blocks of apartments built around open green areas
- There are few roads in residential areas, with many people choosing to travel by bike instead, with just one per cent of residents owning cars.
- And in an attempt to inject some personality into large developments, each street is designed to look slightly different to its neighbours.
- The city has won awards from think tank the Academy of Urbanism.
- Rival university city Cambridge is examined in the civic society’s report as an example of how joined-up thinking in housing and transport can be improved.
- In that case, Cambridge University and Cambridge City Council jointly agreed on the “Cambridge Futures” scheme, which resulted in a public consultation based around services and the environment.
- It suggested more building in the city but also outward along transport links where buses can fix to a dedicated track, like a tram. Thanks to the plan, of the 33,500 houses being built in the city between 2011 and 2031, 55 per cent will be within or on its boundaries and 40 per cent will be affordable.
- To get ideas, officials visited other areas in the UK and Europe and a “quality panel” made up of independent experts now scrutinises major development proposals.
- Oxfordshire’s Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) was triggered by national planning bosses at The Planning Inspectorate ruling North Warwickshire Borough Council’s own 2008 SHMA was out of date.
- Oxfordshire’s previous SHMA was older so council leaders decided it would be replaced and jointly commissioned by all county local authorities.
- Now the housing targets are out, it will be followed by another independent review that will look at how it can be realistically applied.
- The targets for 2031 are:
- Oxford City Council - 28,000.
- South Oxfordshire District Council - 15,500.
- Vale of the White Horse - 20,560.
West Oxfordshire District Council - 13,200.
Cherwell District Council - 22,800.
- Oxfordshire total - 100,060.