LARGE areas of local countryside are under threat because of demands from the Government for a big increase in gravel and sand extraction in Oxfordshire.

Parishes have warned that a heavy environmental price will have to be paid if the county is forced to meet newly-proposed mineral extraction targets.

Oxfordshire County Council has already drawn up a list of site options — and the South Oxfordshire campaign group Page (Parishes Against Gravel Extraction) announced it was reforming to prevent “years of chaos to villages”.

County Hall is looking at concentrating gravel extraction on one or two large areas.

One of the sites includes Radley, Dorchester, Benson, Culham, Warborough and Sutton Courtenay, with the second centred on the Lower Windrush Valley, Stanton Harcourt, Eynsham and Cassington.

Another option would involve dispersing the mineral extraction across the county, to also include sites near Cholsey, Biceser, Chipping Norton, Faringdon, Bampton, Witney and Burford.

The county council has begun looking at locations after Communities Secretary John Denham proposed increasing the quantities of gravel and sand that Oxfordshire must provide to 2.1m tonnes a year, an increase of almost 20 per cent.

New guidelines propose a reduction nationally of 2.4 per cent. A target of 2.1m tonnes a year would make Oxfordshire the south-east’s main source of granite and sand, slightly ahead of Hampshire (2.05m). A figure of 1.05m is proposed for Buckinghamshire and 1.33m for Berkshire.

Steve Thompson, of Page, which represents eight local parishes, said: “Gravel extraction on the scale that the county council proposes could bring 15 years of chaos to the villages in this area and result in permanent damage to our local heritage. Our rural villages and lifestyles need protecting.

“The need for sand and gravel in Oxfordshire has been dictated by a regional planning policy that takes little account of local issues and produces unrealistic targets as a result.

“In 2003, Page successfully defended the Stadhampton-Berinsfield-Warborough-Benson area from large-scale gravel extraction plans. Had those plans been implemented, the council would have sanctioned the destruction of a substantial area of natural beauty, archaeology, heritage and prime agricultural land.”

Dorchester county councillor Lorraine Lindsay-Gale said: ”The strategy is being driven by a regional target that overestimates demand. If a more realistic target were set, the county has enough reserves.

“The pressure to open new areas for extraction should and must be challenged.”

She said Oxfordshire was still suffering from past mistakes about gravel extraction sites —“What happened to Dorchester in the 1960s and 1970s was a crime against our heritage. A Neolithic henge monument, equivalent to Avebury and Stonehenge in national importance, was quite literally dug up and thrown away through gravel extraction.”

Oxfordshire County Council spokesman Owen Morton said the council was setting out options to environmental groups, parish councils, landowners and the minerals industry in its consultation.

He said: “We have made it clear that the initial options will be modified in the light of this consultation. We will be carrying out further and wider public consultation later in the year. The current sand and gravel requirement that the council has to plan for is 1.82m tonnes a year, as set by central Government.”

A council document says concentrating the extraction in one or two areas would avoid a larger number of communities being hit, but would mean having to transport gravel larger distances by road to customers.

It says that dispersing sites would allow extraction to take place near areas where gravel and sand is wanted, but give lessen opportunities for “large-scale habitat creation” once the gravel work was completed.