Update from BYG: the Begbroke & Yarnton Green Belt Campaign
Almost exactly a year ago many of us submitted responses to Cherwell District Council’s initial consultation on options for meeting Oxford City Council’s ‘unmet’ housing need. Nine months later, after a long gap in which we heard nothing much from Cherwell but in which time the Begbroke & Yarnton Green Belt Campaign was established, we submitted the best response we could backed by legal and expert advice. We could not have accomplished this without the solid and generous support of the residents, parish councils and groups within Begbroke and Yarnton. In only a couple of months we raised £14,604, such is the strength of feeling concerning Cherwell’s plans to destroy our green belt and our villages. In submitting our response to Cherwell we spent £8,773 on legal and expert fees.
The Budget and the Cambridge-Milton-Keynes-Oxford Arc
In November the Chancellor of the Exchequer surprised many with an announcement in his budget speech that, as part of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford (CaMkOx) “corridor” the government had committed a ‘down payment’ of 100,000 houses by 2031 as part of one million new houses to be built by 2050. The “Housing Deal” (or The Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal, to give its full name) included funding of £60m for housing and £150m for infrastructure improvements. Somewhere along this CaMkOx Corridor would be “Britain’s biggest new town”. It is worth briefly unpicking what these statements actually mean.
In the week preceding the budget the National Infrastructure Commission published its report on the CaMkOx Arc (or Corridor). The Chancellor explicitly backed the vision of the report to build one million houses by 2050, and implement both the East-West railway and the Oxford-Cambridge Express-way. The report is worth reading since it contains forewarnings of what is yet to come.
The 100,000 houses to which the Chancellor refers in his budget statement is not a new number but refers to the total identified by the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA), an analysis that has driven the local plans (and Oxford’s ‘unmet’ housing need numbers) since 2014. So nothing new here then? Well, in September 2017 the government published a consultation document on a new, improved method of calculating housing need. The application of the new formula to Cherwell and to Oxford City actually resulted in the objectively assessed housing need falling substantially in number. If the new formula survives its consultation period then on the Government’s own calculations, the outcome would be that Oxford City and Cherwell would be able to meet their housing requirements without having to remove Green Belt for thousands of houses. In the meantime, however, the Housing and Growth Deal between the Government and the Oxfordshire Growth Board looks like an attempt to ensure that lower housing numbers will not be considered and that the current plans to build on large areas of Green Belt and countryside will not be dislodged.
And that is just the starting point. The CaMkOx report declares that pretty much double the number of houses will be needed to be built per year than currently identified in local plans, in order to accommodate between 1.4 and 1.9 million people. The 30,000 houses per year now required as a result of accepting the vision of the Arc includes a proportion to meet “pressures from land constrained markets”. This is surely London’s unmet housing need? First we agreed to meet our own local needs. Then we were asked to meet Oxford’s unmet need; and now it looks like we are asked to meet London’s unmet housing need. Given that the CaMkOx report envisages the potential for “city-scale” housing developments (containing 150,000+ houses) between Oxford and Milton Keynes, and between Bedford and Cambridge, it’s not surprising that the Corridor is viewed as a new urban extension to London.
You may also be concerned to read, in the “Oxford(shire) First-Last Mile Strategy Report” that informed the CaMKOx report that the question was asked, “What further incentive could work in a local deal to ensure that land is/continues to be brought forward by colleges for development?” The answer from Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council included, of course, “Removing land from the Oxford Green Belt with the potential to form sustainable urban extensions to Oxford to enable sites to be brought forward to meet the specific requirements of Oxford’s housing unmet need, as well as potentially contributing to meeting the housing requirements of those adjoining districts in a sustainable manner.”
And whilst the £150m for infrastructure improvements sounds like a significant sum, it is not. By comparison, the top twelve infrastructure schemes for Oxfordshire alone total over £1.5 billion. In exchange for a relatively small amount of funding Oxfordshire has been locked into a commitment to deliver its full SHMA allocation of housing (and more).
Oxfordshire Growth Board
So, you may be wondering, when did our Cherwell District Council vote on either the CaMkOx Arc or the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal? We do not believe there has been a vote. Prominent in the CaMkOx Arc report, and in the Housing Growth Deal, is the Oxfordshire Growth Board (also behind the approval of the SHMA and allocation of Oxford’s unmet housing need). The Oxfordshire Growth Board is a ‘quango’ comprising the leaders of the district and City councils together with attendees from the non-elected Local Enterprise Partnership (OXLEP). It is worth noting that the CaMkOx Arc report recommends that the Oxfordshire Growth Board is further strengthened, morphing into “a planning joint committee by April 2018, ensuring it is empowered to take decisions on the development, adoption and delivery of a strategic statutory spatial plan”.
We wonder what Cherwell’s district councillors think about the growing power of the Growth Board? Maybe we should ask them all? When the Leader of Cherwell District Council is reported in the press as saying we have a duty to respond positively to central Government plans for Oxfordshire then one does wonder about the role of a district council in all this. So much for local decision-making. We are sure a growing number of district councillors, and not only those in our own area, are feeling increasingly disempowered and disquieted by these developments apparently beyond their control.
Support from our MP
Conversely, it is worth remembering how supportive our own MP, Layla Moran, has been throughout our campaign. On 30 October Begbroke and Yarnton made it into the pages of Hansard with a question in the House of Commons from Layla to the Housing Minister, worth reproducing in full,
“My constituents in the villages of Kidlington, Yarnton and Begbroke find themselves in a perverse situation. Cherwell District Council is proposing to build 4,400 homes in the green belt between the villages to meet Oxford city’s unmet housing need. Due to the sequencing of the plans, however, that unmet need is now down to go under the new proposed assessment. In short, the districts are putting the cart before the horse. Will the Minister agree to meet me, so I can explain the situation more fully and reassure my constituents that their grave concerns about this plan will be heard?”
To which the Housing Minister responded, “Of course I will meet the hon. Lady. We are committed to retaining the current green belt protections. There may be exceptional circumstances in which a local authority chooses to amend its green belt, but it has to take its local community with it” (our emphasis).
The reassurance concerning the protection of the Green Belt was reiterated by the Chancellor in his budget speech (“continuing the strong protection of our green belt”). However, no new protections have been announced and as we know from our campaign, and those of others, protection of the Green Belt is not that strong after all. Local planning authorities, like Cherwell, often have a superficial view of the “exceptional circumstances” required to remove Green Belt in favour of new housing developments (and unlikely to include social or genuinely affordable housing).
The coming months
Whilst the interventions of central Government and the relentless pursuit of growth by the Oxfordshire Growth Board may make it all seem hopeless, our campaign must grow louder. For the fact remains, despite all the talk about numbers and deals, national policy has not changed. Local Plans must be consulted upon and must be submitted for examination by an independent planning inspector. Green Belt must only be removed in exceptional circumstances. The BYG response to the consultation, a copy of which is linked from our website, drew attention to numerous serious flaws in Cherwell’s Plan. In particular, we assert that Cherwell’s so-called consultation was unlawful and that a crucial step has been omitted: Cherwell should have conducted a genuine consultation, to which they respond, prior to any submission to the Planning Inspector; and not a misleading process that gathered views for submission to the Inspector along with the proposed revision to the Local Plan. Therefore, we continue to demand Cherwell District Council withdraw the proposed submission plan. At the very least Cherwell must conduct a proper consultation. Better still, Cherwell should delay submission of the revised local plan in favour of cooperating with the district and City councils on a spatial strategy for Oxfordshire that prioritises objectively assessed, genuinely affordable housing, on urban, brownfield, and publicly-owned sites. That would be better aligned with national policy.
At the time of writing Cherwell shows no signs of having heard any of these messages and has drafted a revised timescale that proposes submission of their Plan to the Inspector in March 2018 (concurrent with the councils agreeing a statement of common ground with respect to the Housing and Growth Deal).
Our job is to stop the submission, by a combination of political and legal action as required. We believe we have a strong case but, as always, it is only together that we can save our Green Belt and save our villages. Encourage your neighbours to sign up to our email list for updates and action plans. Join our active Facebook group and follow us on Twitter.
Here’s hoping for a successful 2018.
On behalf of BYG: the Begbroke & Yarnton Green Belt Campaign
Facebook campaign group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BYGreenbelt/
“Partnering for Prosperity: a new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc”, <https://www.nic.org.uk/publications/partnering-prosperity-new-deal-cambridge-milton-keynes-oxford-arc/>
“Oxford(shire) First-Last Mile Strategy Report”, <https://www.nic.org.uk/publications/oxfordshire-first-last-mile-strategy-report/>
“Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal”, <https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/1236/oxfordshire_housing_and_growth_deal>
House of Commons, Assessment of Housing Need: Layla Moran to Alok Sharma, 30 October 2017, <http://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-30/debates/979F475C-5C41-41D0-9D1C-403C7CE12025/AssessmentOfHousingNeed#contribution-1709BBA9-358E-4F2F-AB45-8002BEE666AA>