THE shape of Oxford over the next 14 years lies in the hands of one woman.
Government planning inspector Dr Shelagh Bussey has spent the last two weeks putting Oxford City Council ’s sites and housing plan under the microscope. The document lays out proposals for up to 8,000 homes across more than 60 sites in the city, and plots the authority’s plans for housebuilding until 2026. After a six-week public consultation, she will have to decide whether the policy is sound and, if it isn’t, it will go back to the drawing board. The city council’s head of planning, Michael Crofton-Briggs, said the ball was now in Dr Bussey’s court. He said: “This is very much a document which is sitting on her desk and what we’re all doing is asking her to make her decision and send that back to us. “It is an important document, in which we have sought to identify the more significant sites which are going to come forward for development.
“But these aren’t the only sites that are going to come forward, it’s just that these are the ones we’ve identified now.” He said he felt the hearings had gone “very well”, and that he believed Dr Bussey’s comments would be positive. He said: “Our assessment is, in the way she’s been asking further questions, asking them in front of respondents and having some further debate on them, that she wants to feel there is some kind of growing consensus here. “Our sense on this is that she’s wanting to be as transparent as she can be. I think we have got to a stage where we think the inspector is indicating to us that she’s able to be supportive.” Throughout the process, the council has had to reach several compromises after controversial policies were questioned by Dr Bussey. Among the key issues she will have to rule on is a proposal to require developers of student halls to make contributions to social housing in the city. The policy proved controversial, with both city universities objecting, although an exemption on sites “deemed only appropriate for student developments” was offered. She will also have to assess the council’s defence of its proposed cap on shared houses, known as houses of multiple occupation, in specific areas to avoid saturation. Mr Crofton-Briggs said revisions had been made as the hearings progressed. He said: “The process is that we will combine this in a single document and publish it for consultation – so there will be an opportunity for everyone to see the definite changes and comment on them. Board member for city development Colin Cook said: “The sites and housing development plan document is key to guiding the development of various sites across the city, and housing within the city, over the next 10 to 15 years. “It will contribute to the changing evolution of Oxford as the city grows and develops. “At the same time, it will protect our heritage and will play its part in guiding both current and future councillors through their role in the development of the city. “Dr Bussey has been thorough in her inspection of the plan and has asked some very tough questions, but I have to praise our officers for the fantastic work they have done and the good quality of the background evidence they have prepared to present to her.”
KEY ISSUES FACING DEVELOPERS AND COUNCIL PLANNERS :
BARTON WEST: The largest housing site left in Oxford is Barton West – land owned by the city council that could provide up to 1,200 homes.
Separate hearings on the “Barton Area Action Plan” have been held by Dr Bussey to examine its potential for development.
The proposal for the north-east area of the city, like many others, has not escaped compromise.
Oxford City Council was forced to scrap its plans to create an “urban boulevard” with a 40mph speed limit on the A40 ring road after the county council objected.
It has also ditched wording that could have led to a narrow central reservation, and is now exploring a 50mph limit.
But unanswered questions remain, including concerns raised by Northway residents over emergency services and bus access to their estate and loss of green space.
Dr Bussey’s comments on the Barton AAP will be submitted to the council separately, after hearings into it finished earlier this week.
GRENOBLE ROAD DEVELOPMENT: For those at the city council, two words are fundamentally missing from the sites and housing document— Grenoble Road.
Development on land south of the city is an ambition of both main political parties on Oxford City Council.
But, crucially, the land falls within South Oxfordshire District Council’s boundary. And it is bitterly opposed to the idea of this Green Belt development.
Oxford city councillors see it as an ideal location for development of up to 4,000 homes to meet the city’s housing shortage.
In a recent article, former council leader and Lib Dem John Goddard said: “It’s adjacent to the city, so the need to travel to jobs and recreational facilities is reduced. Also the land there is not of high amenity value. The idea that this land provides a valuable and irreplaceable natural amenity is poppycock.”
But in the same article, SODC leader Ann Ducker argued: “There’s this talk of localism, but there’s also a very strong opposition locally to any break in the Green Belt in the area, so we will defend it.
“I accept the city council has a housing shortage, and that’s something we will discuss with them, but we won’t change our position.”
If the council could include Grenoble Road in the plan, it would. But, for now, it looks like the stalemate will continue.
STUDENT ACCOMMODATION: Two key pieces of policy have been kept on the agenda by Oxford City Council, despite local opposition.
The first, a requirement for student accommodation developments to make contributions to social housing, sparked objections from universities.
Lawyers for both the University of Oxford and Brookes told Dr Bussey the policy would lead to higher rents, putting off students from less affluent backgrounds.
The council dealt with the objections by adding a clause that gives an exemption to developments on sites which are deemed to be only suitable for student developments.
Neither establishment gave their views on whether or not the changes had addressed their concerns, with Oxford University refusing to comment outright.
Brookes director of estates and facilities management Richard Monk said: “Oxford Brookes aims to provide affordable student accommodation to support a balanced mix of communities throughout the city.
“Students choose university accommodation, which is at an affordable price in a location where they want to live. Good quality student accommodation takes students out of the private rented sector and enables more housing to be available for both general use and affordable housing.
“However, we have always held the view that additional costs on the provision of new student accommodation would lead to higher rents for students and would particularly affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
The council was also forced to provide evidence and further reassurance about its plan to cap the number of shared homes (Houses of Multiple Occupation) in certain areas.
The policy states: “Planning permission will only be granted for the change of use of a dwelling to an HMO where the proportion of HMOs within 100 metres of street length either side of the application site does not exceed 20 per cent.”
FLOODING: Over the years, Oxford has seen its fair share of flooding.
In 2007, the city was one of many to suffer torrential downpours and rising river levels.
In August, Northway residents were among those who were struck again by flooding in their area, pictured above.
This has led to concerns raised by local people that further development will only make flooding worse.
Northway Residents’ Group member Georgina Gibbs said: “We don’t believe a single home should be built until the drainage problems in this city are addressed.
“The system just won’t cope. Homes have already been flooded with sewage. The system needs to be updated before this goes ahead.”
Last month, Thames Water said the city’s infrastructure may not be up to handling hundreds of new homes planned by Oxford City Council .
Thames Water spokesman Natalie Slater said: “When a developer submits a planning application, the additional demands on the sewerage and water network are carefully considered. We will work with the council to see if there is sufficient capacity. Where necessary, we require developers to fund studies to determine any impacts on the existing infrastructure and, if this work identifies additional capacity is required, the developer may be required to fund this.”