WESTON FRONT RESPONSE TO DCLG PROPOSAL FOR AN 'ECO-TOWN AT WESTON OTMOOR

 

26 June 2008

 

 

 

CONTEXT FOR THIS RESPONSE

This response is made by the Weston Front in response to the Government's request for comments on the proposed new 'eco' town at Weston Otmoor. The Weston Front is a community group which has come together in opposition to the proposals. It receives the widespread support of all the local communities affected by the proposals, amenity and environmental groups and also the support of the following organisations and local parish councils, Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council have voted against the proposal.

 

Bicester Chamber of Commerce

Bicester Town Council

CPRE

BBONT

RSPB

Ardley Parish Council

Bletchingdon Parish Council

Bucknell Parish Council

Charlton on Otmoor Parish Council

Chesterton Parish Council

Fewcot and Murcot Parish Council

Gosford Parish Council

Islip Parish Council

Kidlington Parish Council

Kirtlington Parish Council

Little Chesterton Parish Council

Marsh Gibbon Parish Council

Middleton Stoney Parish Council

Oddington Parish Council

Stanton St John Parish Council

The Hamptons

Wendlebury Parish Council

Weston on the Green Parish Council

 

The Weston Front has no mandate from any local government organisation but is supported by individual parish, district and county councillors, many local business people and has widespread support from residents of all the villages listed above. This coming together of local communities over this wide area is unprecedented.

 

There has been very little information made public by the government or the promoters of the scheme despite the requirement to submit comments by 30th June. This secretive approach and failure to consult local people in a meaningful way is not consistent with declared government policy and deeply regretted. We are astonished that such an ill-considered proposal as this could have got so far through the government's assessment process.

 

 

 

PLANNING PROCESS

These proposals have been concocted in complete secrecy without the involvement of the local planning authorities or local communities. The Department of Communities and Local Government compares the 'eco-town' initiative with the first generation of English new towns. Those towns were carefully sited following agreed planning principles. Neither 'Community' nor 'Local Government' has been consulted on the most appropriate locations before these proposals have been drawn up which are based on nothing more than opportunistic land assembly.

 

DCLG claims that "eco-towns are going through the regular planning process" are provoking scepticism. Government is in the process of issuing a directive (a Planning Policy Statement) which actually lists the 15 short-listed locations. This is the first time ever that government guidance has been site specific. To suggest that this government is following the planning process is risible. Local people are being asked to comment on proposals assembled without consultation within an impossibly short time span.

 

The Parkridge proposal is heavily dependent on the new station and rail link from Oxford through Bicester to Milton Keynes. This is a key component of their bid. Costings suggest that the capital cost of upgrading the existing line with the station would be nominally 200million. To achieve this through a proposed 5billion development at Weston Otmoor demonstrates a massive imbalance. It is not clear what demand modelling has been proposed to prove the viability of the service proposed with particular regard to infrastructure links, franchising the service and peak time capacity. Studies suggest that the Weston Otmoor station positioned between Islip and Bicester will disrupt efficient through traffic due to its proximity to Bicester and Islip.

 

 

SPATIAL PLANNING

Settlement pattern

The proposals ignore the hierarchy of county town, market towns and villages which provide the spatial, economic, social and cultural structure of the county. The policy of the County Council and the district councils is to focus development around the county and market towns. Weston Otmoor would be an isolated ghetto which neither contributes nor relates to the form of any existing settlement. Cherwell has already planned for 11,800 new houses over the next two decades and these are to be sited to develop and support existing towns. As Council leader Barry Woods has said, 'reliance on free-standing new settlements is not an appropriate solution for Cherwell'. Bicester Town Council's statement notes that Cherwell's Local Development Framework is the locally agreed framework for how the area will be developed and sustained for generations to come. There is a plan led development system in place and the proposed 'eco-town' goes completely against those long established principles. The proposals have not been appraised in the context of regional spatial strategies.

 

Local need

The issue is whether the proposed development is in the right place. Cherwell District Council is planning for 11,800 homes, the Vale of the White Horse 11,500, West Oxfordshire 6,700, South Oxfordshire 10,200 and Oxford City 7,000 – 47,200 new homes on Oxfordshire by 2026. The Weston Front is speaking not just as residents of the many villages that would suffer should the proposed new town go ahead, but also as users of the market towns in our county. Those towns need growth and investment – particularly nearby Bicester and Kidlington whose town and parish councils oppose the 'eco-town' that would misdirect investment.

 

 

 

'Eco' Model

The Government has decreed that all housing developments from 2016 will be 'eco' carbon neutral. The eco zero carbon model is no more than an aspirational ideology. The eco device has been used as a promotional tool to justify settlements and the carbon neutral model has not been achieved in any settlement worldwide. Government sources confirm that off grid eco towns are not achievable and imported potable water and power will be essential. The published Weston Otmoor models of public transportation are aspirational in the extreme and the transportation model is untested with no prototype. That being so, the sustainable development of our existing towns makes much more sense. The development of a tract of countryside, unrelated to other settlements is the antithesis of good planning.

 

 

TRANSPORTATION

M40 / A34 congestion and impact on local roads and surrounding villages

Daily congestion and stationery traffic flows cause damaging rat running through surrounding settlements within a 10 mile radius. The impact on surrounding rural roads would be intolerable. 15,000 dwellings would normally be expected to generate 10,000 car journeys at peak hours. It is quite unrealistic to expect a 100% modal shift onto rail. Many people will simply not want to travel along the Oxford to Milton Keynes 'arc'. There would, in addition, be thousands of car trips to the proposed 12,000 job business park. It is naive to believe that the work-force would all live in the adjacent worker-housing. All the villages listed above would be subject to appalling rat-running. The former head of county highways has drawn attention to the inevitable 'congestion and rat running on minor roads' (Oxford Times 2 May).

The site is adjacent severely congested components of a strategic road network comprising the A34 and M40. The junction of these two roads is over capacity and seriously congested and the Highways Agency has expressed major concerns on future capacity.  The new town's position adjacent the M40/A34 major intersection will create high levels of demand for car based journeys and commercial transport flowing into and out of the site. Inevitably strategic traffic flows will be affected.

 

Car park for 5,200 commuters

Transport infrastructure and control solutions are proposed for the scheme and assumptions appear to be based on ideological and highly restrictive road pricing principles. The proposed development would have a park and ride capacity in excess of 5,000 parking spaces; this is larger than all the Oxford park and ride sites combined and if it proceeded would generate major and significant peak traffic flows and is immediately adjacent environmentally sensitive areas.

 

 

LANDSCAPE AND ECOLOGY

Impact on SSSI and other natural habitats; loss of farmland

 

The Parkridge proposal asserts that a detailed assessment has revealed the area to be "ecologically mundane" -  this is a surprising statement being aware that 25% of the proposed new town and its infrastructure will occupy Greenbelt land, and the proposal will occupy and damage  Sites of Special Scientific Interests (SSSI) which contain an ecology of national importance. Notwithstanding the above Caroline Flint has stated repeatedly that greenbelt land will not be comprised and in this instance that would clearly not be the case. The remainder of the site is Greenfield with an extensive network of woodland, hedgerows, agricultural land and natural wetland habitat sites. The first stage selection process set down the site as brownfield which is not the case. A small component of the site is on a grassland airfield with no hard runways.

 

Local communities are not alone in their assessment of the landscape and ecological values of the area. CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), BBOWT (Buckingham, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) unanimously oppose the development.

 

BBOWT own areas of SSSI (sites of special scientific interest) to the south of the development including Woodside's Meadow nature reserve on land including a medieval ridge and furrow system. Woodside's Meadow is part of Wendlebury Meads and Mansmoor Close SSSI making overall one of the largest continuous complexes of rich wild flower meadow in the country. BBOWT have listed 100+ of rare plant species including pepper-saxifrage, betony, sneezewort, green winged orchid and cuckoo flower. Great crested newts have been observed and photographed.  BBOWT's reserves will be destroyed by the development, not least because of the inclusion of a railway station and a large  park and ride car park. Water run-off alone in increased quantity and toxicity would destroy this delicate ecosystem.

 

The south of the development will impact directly on several SSSIs including Wendlebury Meads and Woodsides Meadow owned by BBOWT together with two ancient woodlands. These areas are species-rich, diverse meadows and are dependent on a supply of good quality unpolluted water with large buffer zones. The new station and parking complex will be immediately adjacent these importantly diverse wildlife areas. There also needs to be a full assessment of the hydrological consequences of the development to the nearby SSSI of Weston fen, the fen is an example of a rare calcareous fen which is totally dependent on an unpolluted and constant supply of clean water.

 

The RSPB has grave concerns about the impact on designated wildlife sites within the development area. The RSPB have particular concerns on the impact on SSSIs, flood risk and run off risk and water supply issues. The RSPB have also endorsed concerns on the impact on Wendlebury Meads and Mansmoor Close's site of SSSI.

 

The airfield is a major land component of the development bid. RAF Weston on the Green covers approximately 150 hectares, (360 acres) and only a very small proportion, nominally 5% is covered by hard standing and buildings; the remainder is a greenfield site with a grass landing strip. Green areas have never been developed and have been used for light aviation, parachuting and recreational gliding since its foundation in 1916. The airfield is ecologically diverse; birdlife includes skylark, corn bunting, grey partridge, wheatear, curlew, grasshopper warbler, quail, red kites and buzzards. Hares are resident and Nuctule bats and pippistrells roost in buildings and tree belts. Glow worms have been sighted and a wide range of English wild flowers including cowslip, dames violet, ladies bedstraw, field scavias, sheep sorrel and others. There is a wide range of fungi and grasses.

 

The remainder of the land under consideration is productive farmland with an extensive network of trees, hedgerows and water courses, peat bogs and land set aside for habitat conservation purposes.

 

 

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

Air pollution

The key air pollutant of the site of the development is exhaust particles, exposure to which will increase as a result of greater volumes of traffic. Recent evidence suggests that air pollution has a much greater effect on mortality in the UK than previously realised. Measurably small increases in fine particles are associated with significant increases in death from all causes and particularly cardio-vascular disorders. A study has demonstrated that children living in the US and Canada within 500 – 1500 metres of motorways have measurably worse lung function growth than those living further away. Increased traffic on the M40 and A34 will result in more severe ozone pollution. Additional exposure has been shown to be associated with a higher risk of summer deaths. The development of Weston Otmoor will result both in reduced life expectancy among adult residents and it will damage the health of their children.

 

Noise

The development site will sit between Weston on the Green and the M40 and A434. The noise environment in Weston on the Green is aggressive with high levels of background traffic noise audible externally and inside houses for at least 18 hours of the day. Weston Otmoor will sit between Weston on the Green and traffic noise and the acoustic environment within the new town will be significantly greater .

 

Noise pollution levels in surrounding villages will increase due to an even higher incidence of through traffic on roads not designed for high volumes nor high speeds. Affected villages include Kidlington, Hampton Poyle, Bletchington, Kirtlington, Middleton Stoney, Ardley, Chesterton, Little Chesterton, Wendlebury, Weston on the Green and Islip.

 

 

RESOURCE ISSUES

Potable water

The current Environment Agency, Cherwell Catchment Management Strategy, makes it clear that no water will be available for this new town from either of the rivers in the area or the aquifers. The development is in a designated "high water stress" area. Farmoor would not be able to deliver the water required and the new reservoir to the south west of Abingdon, should it be built, will not come on line for at least 15 years. Climate change predictions for the south east include a calculated reduction of summer precipitation of 60% by the 2080s.

 

Surface water drainage

The development site is partly wetland and stands under water for long periods. Existing run off floods Wendlebury regularly and the River Ray catchment which includes the development site frequently floods downstream placing Islip at risk and thence the Cherwell confluence and West Oxford which has flooded catastrophically twice during the last  calendar year. Hard surfaces within the development will exacerbate run off and compromise settlements downstream of the Ray and compromise Otmoor lowlands.

 

 

ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS

Impact on existing towns

The proposals overlook not only the green belt, greenfield and ecology of the Weston Otmoor area but also the social and economic impacts upon neighbouring settlements. The location of major employment on junction 9 of the M40 would generate massive additional car use and threaten the employment base of the neighbouring market towns of Bicester and Kidlington. Investment and infrastructure would be diverted from where needed threatening employment in existing towns which serve existing populations.

 

The proposals would severely impact particularly upon the market town of Bicester and also nearby Kidlington. These centres need infrastructure and investment not competition on their doorstep. The Bicester and District Chamber of Commerce rightly notes that Bicester 'suffers from a lack of infrastructure, limited social and community facilities, a town centre that is in dire need of development and a workforce of which 70% commutes out of Bicester'. The Parkridge proposals will exacerbate these issues. The proposed 'eco-town' would seriously degrade Bicester. Investment should be focussed where there is need, around what we already have, not on greenfield sites.

SOCIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Housing need

An 'eco-town' on a motorway junction is a stunningly inappropriate location. It will attract commuters who use M40 or A34 corridor. Parkridge's own promotional brochure states that 'families will be moving to the new settlement 'from different areas of the country'. How does this address local needs?

 

The proposals would be little more than a dormitory settlement attracting commuters by virtue of its location on M40 junction 9, rather than a genuine attempt to serve local people. Housing and related community services diverted from where needed.

 

The proposal will be isolated, introverted and lacking urban form. The highly restrictive traffic model will effectively confine inhabitants as it will be difficult to leave the site spontaneously. The exit/entry model for pedestrians and traffic is highly restrictive and will need significant enforcement systems.

New development from land use experience needs to be located where it can be connected at all levels to surrounding movement patterns using all recognised transportation modes including private traffic.

 

 

CONCLUSION

The continental examples offered by the government are all on brownfield sites within or adjacent to large metropolitan areas. Weston Otmoor would be an ugly intrusion on a special landscape, would undermine nearby market towns where growth is planned and would devastate surrounding villages. The reliance on a highly restrictive and prescriptive traffic model is aspirational in the extreme and the result will inevitably be additional congestion on an overloaded strategic road traffic network. Twelve Challenge Panel members question the transportation model and the risk of "commuterville". The panel also requests robust input on the impact on Bicester and the potential social isolation of inhabitants of the free standing settlement. The panel also highlights inadequacies with regard to incoming and outgoing water management and asks for further elaboration on the "eco model" together with on site food production and calibration of the zero carbon footprint expectations.

 

FURTHER STUDIES

Weston Front and its advisors will put in place further studies inhabiting the headings set down in this document and further papers will emerge up to the second stage declaration point which is understood to be in late autumn 2008.