On Wednesday, 18th March at Bicester Country Club, DCLG held a Government Eco Towns Programme Stakeholders Consultation Meeting. Chaired by Henry Cleary, (DCLG), we heard presentations from Gideon Amos (Town & Country Planning Association), Barry Wood, Leader of Cherwell DC and also from Halcrow the consultancy group that carried out the NW Bicester Concept Study. The meeting was not public and was only open to those representing groups and organisations involved in, or affected by the Eco Towns Programme (it could be argued that that would include everybody!).
The emphasis of the meeting was on the proposed NW Bicester development. Henry Cleary did clearly comment that the Shipton on Cherwell proposal was not being considered. Listening to Barry Woods and Halcrow and even the odd comment from DCLG, one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that NW Bicester will be the first eco-town in Oxfordshire.
But there's much more at stake here. There is deep resentment from local people, especially from Bucknell, Chesterton and Caversfield, as to how NW Bicester was even proposed as a possible site. The initial Halcrow study demonstrates only marginal financial viability. Coupled with the fact that local landowners (unlike those involved with Weston Otmoor) are adamant that they have no wish to sell their land and that DCLG are not supportive of compulsory purchase for eco-towns, the NW Bicester proposal could well be a non-starter.
This week (16th March) Roger Sporle from Parkridge, the proposers of the Weston Otmoor site, sent a letter to Oxfordshire County Councillors criticising the fact that Cherwell had decided "to pursue a second rate proposal (of NW Bicester)". They say that "North West Bicester offers no major infrastructure improvements, will need substantial public sector funding to be delivered and will not deliver any greater benefit to Bicester than Weston Otmoor". They support their arguments in a thirteen page document glorifying the merits of Weston Otmoor and denigrating NW Bicester.
It would be unfair to compare the two proposals in great detail - the NW Bicester proposal is still in its infancy stage and Parkridge have had 18 months to fine tune their proposals. But it is interesting to note some of the comments Parkridge have to say about NW Bicester in their letter to the councillors:
We will need to address the many inconsistencies in this letter to Councillors - but for those people out there claiming that Weston Otmoor is dead - it's far from dead - it's like a phoenix ready to emerge from the ashes of negative assessment reports and reinvent itself!