Two media stories have raised the profile of planning policy again. One is positive; one less so.
- The government has announced a relaxation of planning policy for the space above high street shops, allowing two flats to be created without planning permission instead of just one as at present.
- Rumours abound of a clash inside the coalition with Chancellor George Osborne wanting to shred Green Belt policy and Eric Pickles strongly opposing this change.
The initiative in relation to flats above shops has to make good sense although its impact will never be huge. Too many city and town centres are lifeless in the evenings except for the pub and restaurant trade as shops close and the area empties. Many shops, banks and estate agents have upstairs areas that have long been empty or used for storage. This is partly a function of the decline of family businesses and the growth of chains where the manager no longer lives over ths shop. It has to make sense to re-populate town centres with homes above the shops and to bring life back to urban centres.
Turning to the Green Belt debate, the media may not have thought this through yet but this debate is uncomfortably close to the Prime Minister’s own backyard. London is surrounded by a huge Green Belt but the highest political profile Green Belt after London must be that surrounding Oxford. Oxford City has retained its charm with a mediaeval street pattern that bedevils transport planning but makes it a great place to live, work and study. It beats Reading, Slough, Wokingham and Milton Keeynes hands down because it has not been ruined by urban or suburban sprawl.
The politics of Oxford’s Green Belt are complicated and fascinating. The Labour-run Oxford City Council has a huge housing waiting list, partly a function of a housing market dominated by student and post-graduate demand from two world class universities and a large health sector. Equally significant, the council has a political ambition to bid for unitary council status. My county council saw off their last bid becase they are laughably small and inefficient but that has not stilled their ambition. Oxford City Council would like to grow its population and influence and can only do that by busting its boundaries. Their choice would be to build a new Blackbird Leys estate near the Kassam Stadium at Grenoble Road. This land is within South Oxfordshire District Council’s boundary and they are resistant to this housing growth as are the villages close to Grenoble Road. My fear is that another 8,000 mainly social rented houses here would add little to the economy and a lot to the local housing benefit bill.
If there is an argument for some changes to Oxford’s Green Belt, it should be to the north of the City and not to the south to support the economically active and not the economically inactive. Draw a line from Christchurch to Bicester Village and it passes through Begbroke where Oxford University aready has a thriving business park and close to London/Kidlington Airport offering business flights around the world. If there is a logic to some re-drawing of Oxford’s Green Belt, it should be for the strategic local authority to lead on this, working with the local planning authorities and not because of any diktat from the Treasury.
Hands off our Green Belt, George!