I was fascinated to read the thoughts of our Chancellor, George
Osborne and our Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Elizabeth Truss, in today’s Daily Telegraph. While their plans to ensure our villages share in the prosperity that a Conservative government is bringing, there are some issues that just aren’t working for villages at the moment and I am not sure they have considered them fully.
In my twenty-four years as an Oxfordshire county councillor, eleven of them as Leader of the Council and with DC as one of my Oxon MPs, I represented five delightful villages in North Oxfordshire. Three of them, Adderbury, Bloxham and Bodicote were large with populations ranging from 2,500 to 3,500; two were smaller, Milcombe had some 650 residents and Milton was an old farming hamlet with a population of just 200.
The three larger villages were situated just beyond Banbury, separated by a sliver of farmers’ fields. During the last ten years, these villages have all witnessed considerable housing growth with modern estates “bolted on” to their edges. With the exception of Adderbury, the style of these estates has been increasingly urban and wholly failed to replicate the rural style of Bloxham and Bodicote. In the case of Bodicote, it is now effectively connected to its urban neighbour, Banbury and recent planning applications threaten to cement this joining of urban and rural even more powerfully.
The two smaller villages are a little further from Banbury and much less sustainable so have largely survived the blight brought by inappropriate developments in the larger ones.
Let me start with the Green Belt. As I have said, the villages I represented are surrounded by green fields but the quantum of green space has diminished over the years with successive planning applications approved under the coalition’s and now this government’s rush for housing growth at any price. Many of my constituents were firmly of the view that they had the benefit of Green Belt around their villages and have learned the hard way that this is not the case and the green fields that once protected their villages from urban encroachment no longer do. Indeed, the Oxford Green Belt is a major problem for north Oxfordshire villages because its constricting corset around the City is increasing pressure for housing beyond it, including the villages I represented.
Let me move on to design. The planning system locally seems almost incapable of influencing design and we have seen hideously urban estates planted on the edge of our fine old Domesday villages. To the left is the worst example at the Milton Road entrance to Bloxham and adding absolutely nothing to the architectural or social quality of this fine old Domesday village. Estates like this could be found anywhere in Banbury, Bicester, Brighton, Barnsley or Brentwood and bear absolutely no relation to the architectural style of Bloxham that had evolved gently since Domesday. This is not the only blot in this area; just the worst. A newer one is emerging in Bodicote with 1,000 or more houses to be built as an urban extension to Banbury but much of it in the Parish of Bodicote and joining up this Domesday village to its urban neighbour.
Next, I turn to size. In this headlong rush to build, build, build and with a political attempt to minimise the take of green fields, we are cramming too many little boxes into inadequate space either for the social or economic good of their residents. A prospective buyer of a house on the burgeoning Bodicote estate (“Longford Park” as it is known) noted that there was no room for a wardrobe in the largest bedroom and was advised by the selling agent that buyers were using the smallest bedroom for storage because it wasn’t really big enough for a bed! One resident on this estate has already, very honestly and properly, sought and obtained planning permission to convert their integral garage into more living space and I suspect more applications will follow but with the inevitable parking of motor cars on the inadequate road space. I will return to parking later but first need to expand on the social and economic dis-benefits of our new housing stock. If you build houses that are too small to accommodate a dining table and chairs or to provide separate space for children to entertain their friends, the social consequences are not difficult to see. To encourage the practice of snacking on the settee while watching the TV is a shameful consequence of modern housing design. On the economic front, the Osborne/Truss piece referred to the modern practice of home working and the ability to do this with super-fast broadband. Well, broadband may be coming but you also need space in your home to do your home working. It may not need to be an entire room but it will need to be a space for a table, chair and, maybe, a little storage and if it is both a husband and a wife who home work and a child or two who need to do their school home work, the inadequacy of space in British homes now being built should be blindingly obvious.
Next, I come to the vexed issue of the motor car. Our planners seem to have been comprehensively brain-washed into a belief that walking and cycling are wonderful, public transport is abundant, regular and reliable and the motor car is an invention of the devil. As a result, everything is done to deter people from owning or using motor cars. Houses are built with laughably inadequate parking provision; what garage space there is, is often too small for today’s generation of 4X4s that many favour and, in any case, given the lack of storage space in modern houses, the garage is often given over to store all the possessions of our consumer-driven age. The result is cars left outside houses, on pavements and on roads that have also been deliberately designed, Canute-like, to discourage the use of the private car. Now these policies may work in urban areas where the school, train station and bus stop are all a short walk away although I am not convinced. However, in villages like those I represented with an hourly bus service that stops at 6:00 pm and does not run on Sundays, it is blindingly obvious that people are going to need the motor car to get about. Add to that the hilly nature of my old patch that makes cycling a pursuit for the super-fit enthusiast and you would think planners would realise the need to differentiate transport policies between urban and rural areas but that has not happened in Oxfordshire yet and I suspect in many other places.
Finally, there was a hint from Osborne/Truss about better local government. Here in Oxfordshire, we endure the two tiers of county and district councils. Districts are responsible for planning but counties for transport and more strategic infrastructure. However, the county council’s ability to plan strategically was weakened some years ago with the abolition of the county structure plan when regional planning was introduced by the Blair government. While regional planning was quickly scrapped by the coalition, the gap between national and local planning remains and I think this is a serious mistake. Districts are too small to take a strategic view of transport and economic needs over a functional economic area and Whitehall is too remote. I welcome Osborne’s support for the Manchester model of joined up local government which covers a functional economic area and plans for the transport, environmental, economic and even health needs of the wider area. I believe it is a form of devolution that England desperately needs as a whole but, while it may find its way to Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and the likes and even forward-looking Cambridgeshire, I fear Oxfordshire will be a long way behind in the queue and will lose the opportunity to promote the growth we all need and that the Osborne and Truss piece sets out to promote.
Your wish to sustain rural England is welcome, Chancellor and Secretary of State but there is a long way to go to deliver your vision but will retain the best of our rural communities while making then real engines of economic growth and places where people wish to put down roots.