January: Design or no design?

January: Design or no design?

Last year ended with the City Council’s Oxford Local Plan consultation guiding its development until 2036.  January saw the continuation of Cherwell District’s plans which could see Oxford join up with Kidlington, and South Oxfordshire joined the fray suggesting swathes of development on the north, east and southern edges of Oxford.  The parties are also just beginning to work on what infrastructure this would need. How all this is to join up remains to be seen.  

It is, of course, part of a much bigger picture, with development proposed across the country, and Oxford at the heart of the storm, strategically placed at one end of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

The concept of Oxfordshire as part of what government has referred to as the UK equivalent of Silicon Valley, seems almost too extraordinary to believe for our quiet county, so how should we respond?  Do we hide our head in the sand, or in our hands, pretending that the forces are not strong enough to drive through political, economic and social changes? Or do we look for a way to engage in the debate and to influence the outcome?

There is lots to argue about: We will not all agree on the decision to focus economic growth here, or that housing is needed in the numbers being suggested. We will likely not agree on where the development should go, or on the necessity of the Oxford – Cambridge railway, or the expressway, at all, regardless of its chosen route. 

So where can we find common ground and what should we all expect from some of the best brains and most influential people in the UK who are behind these ideas?  It is my belief that if and when new development comes it should be built to the highest possible standard, whether businesses, housing or infrastructure. As far as possible, it should improve the quality of life for the majority of people, contributing to our environment as well as our economy and be a lasting legacy to be proud of.  It is not our world simply to take as we will without considering how we limit damage and what we leave for future generations to enjoy and to deal with.  

It is naïve to assume that we can develop new industries and new homes on the scale being proposed without considerable impact on the landscape and on our existing lives.  Is it too much to ask that development should make proper places, with negative impacts of loss of open spaces and increased traffic compensated for through wider environmental improvements, housing that is designed for a future generation and is affordable, joined up transport infrastructure and sufficient health and education and leisure facilities to enhance, not just maintain, the experience of people living in and around Oxford.

Delivering good places in which people can live and work will not be easy.  Many things need to come together; land, ownerships, planning policies, transport infrastructure at the strategic level and locally, utility services such as electricity, gas and broadband, social infrastructure including schools, hospitals and cemeteries, flood protection, environmental improvements, access to countryside… the list goes on. 

Our planning system hardly helps.  Strategic infrastructure is largely led from central government in separate departments; the Department for Transport for road and rail, DeFRA the environment and flooding, the Departments of Health and Education for social infrastructure. Locally, transport is largely the responsibility of the County Council and housing the Districts.   So many layers and a culture of siloesdoes not make for joined up thinking.  

Who are the champions of good design who will ensure that development planned and paid for creates the high-quality places we all want to see? We cannot rely on developers, with their financial and often short-term interests, who will deliver only what markets want and planning regulations require. 

We cannot rely on the landowners as experience has shown they little care about what happens on the land they sell.   Private or public, Government, Universities or College land, maximising the capital returns on sale has overtaken any real role in ensuring good sustainable new places are created.  

So what of the Local Planning Authorities, surely best placed to be effective guardians against poor design, and with the right resources and capabilities able to ensure that the economics of development operate effectively to contribute to the bigger strategic picture.  The challenge is that politics gets in the way, and year on year budget cuts has seen their capacities reduced. 

As local groups and neighbourhoods lobby for stopping development, often on their own patches, what should OPT do? Can we make that difference if we simply fight everything in the hope that development will be rebuffed and go away?  Do we give up and let the system do its worst to the area we love? Or do we fight for the right development in the right place, properly designed for the long term to contribute not just to the economy but to a much wider set of objectives including heritage, the environment, and affordable high-quality living.   I know the answer, I just have to work out how to make that difference happen.