OXFORDSHIRE has changed substantially since the mid-1950s. But one thing that hasn’t changed at all is the expanse of countryside that surrounds Oxford.
Work on drawing up the Oxford Green Belt started in 1955 and since then, for good or ill, this protected area of land has remained untouched.
But the increasing need for housing around the county has put unprecedented pressure on the Green Belt, with calls – particularly from Oxford City Council – for its boundaries to be reshaped for the first time.
A study released in March of future housing needs has moved the goal posts and made building on the Green Belt even more of a pressing issue.
All Oxfordshire’s district and city councils have draw up Local Plans to set out where homes could go.
The councils jointly commissioned a study of housing need – a strategic housing market assessment or SHMA – and the results, published in March, said far more homes will be needed than in the Local Plans.
The four district authorities and Oxford were planning for 54,700 new homes by 2031 but the SHMA said this would have to be 100,060.
With Labour-run Oxford City Council hoping to expand the city outwards and the rural district councils which surround it not so keen, whether that review takes place has become a political hot potato.
The city council wants to see a partial review of the Green Belt and has put together a study which has identified land where homes could go, including around Kidlington, Barton and south of Grenoble Road.
City council leader Bob Price
City leader Bob Price said: “The only way you can get a Green Belt review is by working through the local plan inquiry process.
“We now have to work through the process of working out where the appropriate sites are for accommodating that housing need.
“There is some Green Belt within the city boundaries but most of it is high quality landscape such as Port Meadow, which is untouchable.
“Everyone accepts that in planning for housing and employment growth we shouldn’t damage the environment of the county as a whole because it is very beautiful.
“What we are saying is that in terms of urban extension to the city the amount of land needed would be incredibly small compared to the overall size of the Green Belt.”
A stark example of the division between the city council and its neighbours is Green Belt land south of Grenoble Road, which skirts the southern border of Greater Leys. The city council has long-held ambitions to develop the land with up to 4,000 homes.
A large part of this land is owned by the city council – with the rest owned by Magdalen College – which makes is a potentially an easy development to get off the ground.
But it sits just outside its boundaries and inside Conservative-run South Oxfordshire District Council, meaning the city council cannot designate it for housing or review the Green Belt in that area.
South Oxfordshire has equally long-held objections to developing the land and in the review of its local plan following the SHMA it has instead come forward with proposals such as a new town between Wallingford and Thame.
In the Vale of White Horse, the district council is planning to build some 20,000 homes by 2031, including more than 1,000 in the Green Belt, including north of Abingdon and around Drayton.
Radley resident Graham Steinsberg is objecting to plans for 710 new homes in the village and neighbouring Kennington, which he says will create one large settlement engulfing them both.
He said: “There are a number of issues for us, not least of which is that the villages will just become a conurbation.
“We are trying where possible to protect the Green Belt. It exists for some very good reasons. They have to ask whether they have looked at other sites first before diving into the Green Belt.”
In North Oxfordshire, Cherwell District Council opted to put 16,000 homes in its new local plan rather than the 22,000 recommended by the SHMA and this led to a planning inspector calling a halt to the inquiry that was supposed to approve it so that the local authority could go away and find space for the extra homes.
David Betts, chairman of Kidlington Parish Council, said: “We really don’t want to see Oxford coming out towards Kidlington. We want to see Kidlington remain as a separate settlement.
“We don’t want the village to be an urban sprawl and the Green Belt helps Kidlington retain its own identity.”
But the expansion of science and technology across Oxfordshire, including at Begbroke near Kidlington where an incubator for high-tech manufacturing businesses is planned, means the demand for houses in the area is only likely to go up.
Despite this, Helen Marshall, director of the Oxfordshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said there should be no Green Belt review.
Helen Marshall of the Campaign to Protect Rural England
She said: “There are a number of purposes of the Green Belt but the main one is to stop urban sprawl and to protect the character and setting of Oxford.
“The problem with reviewing the Green Belt is that it never stops at a few little changes. As soon as you start nibbling away at it, the Green Belt will become ineffective and not fit for purpose. The more pressure building on it the more important the Green Belt is. While everyone wants to build on it, then it is worth having.
“I think housing has to come from the bottom up and it should be up to local people to take a view about where they want to see housing in their community.
“There are a lot of communities who will accept a small amount of additional housing but want they don’t want is large estate dumped on them.”
Foresight in the 50s helped to halt sprawl
IN 1955, Minister of Housing Duncan Sandys encouraged councils around the country to consider protecting land around their towns and cities by creating clearly defined Green Belts.
Oxford was one of the first cities to begin drawing up a Green Belt in response to this.
The city’s Green Belt was drawn up by Oxford City Council, Oxfordshire County Council and Berkshire County Council with the help of groups like Oxford Preservation Trust.
Its boundary was drawn tightly around the city and it extended five or six miles out in every direction. Some villages were included in the Green Belt while others, such as Kidlington, were surrounded by it but not formally inside it.
By the late 1950s the Oxford Green Belt was being used as part of planning policy to determine planning applications.
There are currently 14 Green Belts around England, the most famous of these is the Metropolitan Green Belt around London, and together they cover more than 1.6m hectares.
The new SHMA housing targets that have been set for the local council areas of Oxfordshire :
- Oxford City Council – was 8,000 homes by 2026 but is now 28,000 by 2031 (or 1,400 a year)
- South Oxfordshire District Council – was 11,500 by 2027 but now 15,500 by 2031 (or 775 a year)
- Vale of White Horse – was 13,000 by 2029 now 20,560 by 2031 (1,028 a year)
West Oxfordshire District Council – was 5,500 by 2029 but now 13,200 by 2031 (or 660 a year)
- Cherwell District Council – was 16,700 by 2031 but now 22,800 by 2031 (or 1140 a year)
- Oxfordshire – was 54,700 but now 100,060 by 2031 (or 5,003 a year)