Let’s Save Oxford From Its Council!
It’s an undemocratic, wasteful, greenwashing environmental disaster
On May 6th, 2021 the citizens of Oxford have a rare chance to demand change in our Council, which has hardly changed its composition in decades.
Oxford is now a sick, overcrowded and ugly city, and more importantly the health or even life of its citizens are at risk, this is literally a matter of life or death.
The damage to the city has been deep – endless traffic jams (returning), an embarrassingly poor carbon footprint, the current and impending loss of precious green space, the ugly Tesco town banality of the city centre, all so far removed from the chocolate box image of dreaming spires existing mostly in the public imagination or behind high walls.
This is not fate, we don’t deserve this, it did and does not have to be like this.
NO – This is caused by mismanagement, incompetence and a refusal to listen or engage with local people stemming from an offensive and identifiably colonial attitude towards who it clearly regards as the benighted natives of this city.
Critically, citizens must wrest back democratic control from this despotism and actively participate in its governance, all else good will follow.
We need fresh leadership that hasn’t normalised and internalised the current status quo.
Council owned green development sites can STILL be saved , they will NEVER come back once lost so:
WE CAN’T LIVE OR DIE LIKE THIS
VOTE FOR CHANGE
Headington Heritage has no political home, is not a candidate, and does not participate in any political party’s activities. I care deeply for this city and it breaks my heart to see the needless damage being done to its natural environment, health of its citizens and heritage.
A right-wing agenda of develop or die is precisely that of the current Council. Planning issues, in particular, seems to have a remarkable, and unhealthy, consensus between the major parties.
Democracy to Dictatorship 2010-2021
Under the current Council’s watch, local democracy, once robust, has become tokenistic. Only ten years ago, each quarter of the city has its own Planning Forum and Committee held locally, together.
Attendance was high, the first part of the meeting was open to all community questions, each and every application was publicly scrutinised. Each objector had five minutes.
Then the constitution was gradually changed, the Forum disappeared, the four Area Planning Committees became only East and West, to only one for the entire city immediately after the next election.
Never again will a rival party be able to achieve a local majority at any Area Planning Committee ever again, the gerrymander is complete.
Only large applications now only come before the Committee for decisions, or when called in by six Councillors within 21 days of publication which in practice is very difficult to achieve. Even the constitutional check on the Council’s own developments, once always brought before Committee as it is judge of its own cause are no longer scrutinised, evening meetings are now held in work hours when most cannot attend. What on earth will they know about any individual area in Oxford?
Should any citizen actually have the temerity to actually speak, now only five minutes are allowed for ALL objectors, so 100 objectors have 3 seconds each. Not so the developers, who can spend endless hours in meetings with Planning Officers, who appear to succumb to a rather virulent form of Stockholm Syndrome.
The kick-it down-the-line nature of Oxford’s Planning Department means refusal mutates into an approval with conditions (eg: heritage, environmental, transport). Once the fuss has died down, the developer, can pick any consultancy who will obligingly state that day is night and provide a developer-friendly opinion.
When the Core Strategy and Site and Housing Policy of 2011 were being formulated, the Council sent leaflets to all households inviting participation and responses, hearings were full.
Not so for the Local Plan 2020 which had publicity little beyond the statutory minimum with the six week “consultation” ending just before Christmas. Responses required scrutiny of many dense Council documents. Those who had not submitted a response at this early stage were excluded from the entire process, meaning many community groups such as the Friends of Old Headington and Headington Plan (I understand) were excluded from participation.
Development site allocation policies were essentially decided by developers and Oxford City Council. Many citizens do not know that once a planning application is submitted for a Site, the Site policy (eg: 100 houses permitted) already dictates the outcome, so resistance is futile.
The NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) requires “early engagement” with communities, Oxford goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid any such thing, placing it politically well to the right of the government.
What an earth could Oxford citizens – architects, engineers, artists, taxi drivers, teachers possibly usefully know or contribute to the community’s future? No, Oxford City Council views them with the disdain of the Norman Lord to his English peasants, nothing has changed in a 1000 years. Britain, as Tony Benn famously said, is the British Empire’s last colony. This is self-defeating, stupid and ultimately very costly.
At the very recent Land West of Mill Lane, Old Marston site “consultation”, the Council presented a complete 120 house and parking plan six weeks before intended submission, perhaps they were arguing about what colour the doors should be.
The Great Green Grab – 2010-2024
The worst is yet to come as the recently adopted disastrous Local Plan 2020 is implemented. Soon the reason for the Council’s Committee clampdown will be clear as public anger mounts, dissent must be suppressed.
No more green space? Easily fixed, the Council simply moved the goalposts, ignoring the scientific analysis of the Green Space Survey 2007 recommendation requiring of 5.75HA green space per 1000 of population incorporated in the Core Strategy, (already much less by 2011), and replacing it with a nonsense “blue/green network” almost all of which is already protected land and unbuildable flood plain without any scientific analysis or consultation. Expert advice regarding the health and well-being of citizens, was overruled by unreviewed opinions and dogma, COVID has given us the lie. (See The Council’s Great Green Grab )
Did the Council perform its constitutional duty and represent its citizens defending Oxford at the Local Plan 2020 hearings and the previous enquiries, explaining to the Planning Inspectorate this sick, dysfunctional, overcrowded city could not, and should not take any more development as no amount could satisfy the demand, that now pain massively exceeded gain?
NO – It ran with pack, tearing chunks of green space out of the community. In Headington alone – Valentia Road Park, Warren Meadow and Ruskin Field are allocated for housing although Headington is already one of the most green-space deprived areas in Oxford.
In the case of Valentia Road Park and Ruskin Field, contrary to the Headington Neighbourhood Plan policies, NO substitute green space was required – basically the result of hundreds of hours of effort by members of the Headington Forum were contemptuously swept aside.
Even Bury Knowle Park had been excluded from the protection of blue/green network status and declared to be part of Headington District Centre. Dunstan Park and the last green portion of Barton Cricket Ground, Barton Road were threatened.
The Barton Park development will have less green space per capita that Tower Hamlets , and will be entirely surrounded by the Land North of Bayswater Brook development (STRAT13) (See The Council’s Great Green Grab ), Map SSSIs, LWSs, and Developments Map Marston,Barton,Sandhills )
Allocating green space for housing not only removes it from community use, but the community becomes larger – how is it in anyone’s interest to create green space deprived communities where, as at Warren Meadow, the children have NOWHERE to play?
Who suffers? Disproportionately, the poor on Council owned land or unable to afford the legal representation so often used by developers and richer communities. All this from a Council purporting to represent their interests!
Greenwashing v. the Eco-Unfriendly Truth
The Council trumpets its declaration of a Climate Emergency, the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, ZEZs and other greenwashing garbage of minor benefit, mostly virtue-signalling, empty nonsense – it is pity it does not practice what it preaches.
The reality is 40,000 a year die each year in the UK from air pollution. This did not stop the Councils from granting permission for the 1000 parking space Westgate or spending £21 million pounds of ratepayers’ money for the Access to Headington project to “improve” car access to feed the football fields of 1970s parking at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s Headington Hospitals, with a total of 4646 spaces, (4.5 times the Westgate!) 70% of which is allocated for staff paying only approximately £70 a year. (See Headington Hospitals. Kill and Cure?)
Why didn’t Oxford City Council tackle this environmental and health emergency by working with the Trust and the County Council to convert, where sound, the football fields of parking to provide environmentally friendly housing, reducing our carbon footprint and saving our children’s health, rather than allowing precious greenbelt land at Garsington and Land north of Bayswater Brook and the last remaining green spaces in Oxford to be gobbled up instead?
This is the politics of the madhouse – using land for car parks, forcing staff in Bicester to drive to the very spot where they could have had a home, poisoning our children walking to the many schools on the commuter routes.
To its credit, the Council tried to resist the demands of the four-person Trust team at the Local Plan 2020 enquiry who lobbied, mostly successfully, to INCREASE car parking provision at the Headington Hospitals, but during the long years when it had an official reduce car parking site policy, application after application was waived through with no reduction and one increase at Manor Surgery. The new Local Plan permits yet more car parking INCREASES.
When highly qualified objectors explained the Consultants’ reports for Oxford City Council’s 10 house development at Warren Crescent Meadow had gross errors of fact and failed to address very real threats to the Lye Valley SSSI, it simply stated it had planning permission and the evidence was sound after being told it was not. (See The Hymn Of The Lye Warren Crescent 10 House Development – Risky, Reckless and Ruthless ). It didn’t even bother conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) based on the wholly unqualified opinion of the Officer – this was clearly required under the regulations.
It then proceeded to propose the 2, Dynham Place (2 houses) development ON the Lye riverbed, using the SAME consultancy company, although it appears it had been factually incorrect on at least four separate issues. A specific request for a fresh pair of eyes was ignored. (See The Lye Fen – Another Death Blow)
These behaviours reveal the Council as a ruthless, reckless developer that will stop at nothing, not even risking the loss of the Ice Age relict Lye Fen, even when presented with incontrovertible evidence that the expert reports were both wrong and incomplete.
Strategic Failures and Mismanagement
The Council has simply allocated each development site in the Local Plan tactically and failed to understand that a Plan implies a Strategy, that is what it is there for.
Three Oxford colleges are building on their publicly used playing fields. leaving Cowley, a green space deprived community with even less space.
When the cumulative loss of green space was pointed out at the enquiry the Officers looked surprised, clearly it hadn’t even been considered, neither was it addressed in the plan’s evidence base, ditto for the Headington developments.
The same lack of strategic thinking is seen at the three Old Marston sites (Hill View Farm, Land West of Mill Lane, Cumberledge Close) which were allocated with no consideration for the cumulative effect on traffic in the most congested part of the city each with car parking provision per household. (See Map SSSIs, LWSs, and Developments Map Marston,Barton,Sandhills )
These could have been one car-free people-centred community an exemplar of a modern eco-friendly lifestyle, but that required leadership, strategy, vision and consultation, all absent from the Council, not even an Area Action Plan was considered.
What was required here was housing for hospital, transient and key workers who want to keep costs down, live locally, use public transport and save as much as possible, but the Council, with no consultation, opted for disjointed and tired commuter developments adding to the traffic hell.
Similarly with the Trust – addressing the 1970s staff car parking requires very close partnership between the Trust, the Council, and Oxfordshire County Council – convincing Trust management (not all) that parking is not a staff perk but an social, environmental and health disaster. Both have failed in their statutory duty to cooperate with each other.
The Councils have access to expertise and funding beyond the reach of the Trust and much could have been achieved – but once again each application was considered individually as the Trust grew organically, leading to the mess we now have. In fairness, the Council’s powers are limited, but much, much, much more could have been done by simple communication and seeking to address the Trust’s legitimate concerns.
In place of Leadership, inspiration and determination, we had incompetence, and slogan shrieking such as “desperately needed social housing” as if this were the responsibility of the community to offer up its last precious dregs of green space and not the organisations responsible for the demand to give up their precious car parks.
There is literally no point of a Planning Department that can’t plan, or a Council that can’t Control.
Waste, Waste, Waste
At Barton Park the Council has spent untold millions remediating a flood plain site, forcing a reduction in social housing to 40%, yet the other 60% it seems will be commuter executive housing, apparently subsidised by the taxpayer.
Taking the Warren Meadow development as an example, to build 10 houses which may destroy the Lye Fen and rob social housing tenants of their last green space, it is proposed to use up to 4 metre foundations (normal=1.8m) on a steep slope, build a SUDS system excavating 60 metres * 5.5m of soil on unstable ground, of which by the 90% Council’s own admission is completely pointless but will proceed, it appears, to avoid another /VAR application and more public scrutiny.
At 2 Dynham Place, hugely expensive 5 metre pile foundations are proposed, again for only two homes.
Scores of reports and hundreds of not thousands of hours of Officer time has been sunk into these projects, yet in an FOI, the Council has admitted it has NO idea how much Officer time has been spent as it does not record it!
No commercial entity could or would operate projects of this size without financial management, cost tracking and benefit analysis. Common sense alone dictates these projects are REDUCING the number of homes by wasting money on expensive housing deliveries which could be more effectively spent building more homes for the same price, without the critical green space and environmental issues. These must be stopped before the main financial outlays occur.
There is chaos at the Council, Heath Robinson schemes such as Warren Meadow and 2 Dynham Place are pursued with a lack of governance, accountability or simple common sense.
Oxford cannot afford to go on like this, it MUST change. We need a fresh pair of eyes and a new leadership and change in direction.
Harnessing the abilities, talents and dedication of citizens, LISTENING is the only way to change this city for the better.
With formal, early engagement, better outcomes can be achieved for the good of all. We all understand the pressures on the city and want to help, but a Council that just rams changes down our throats because mummy knows best so take your medicine is the problem not the solution.
Opinions expressed here are Headington Heritage’s alone, and do not reflect those of others I work closely with many of the developments described here.
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Version 1.0 27/04/21