New blog post! October: Green spaces for all, forever

“Oxford is growing. Its growth may be guided but should not be grudged. The work of the Trust is not to hamper Oxford but to help it… Oxford is not a museum piece. It is a living thing”. This was written in 1927, nearly 100 years ago, when William Morris built his first car factory at Cowley and the workers needed houses. Oxford saw the biggest growth it had ever seen, leading to the development of Summertown, Kidlington, Marston and Headington, Kennington, Botley and so on. It is why Oxford Preservation Trust was set up, when clever Oxford people across town and gown accepted that this change would happen and, rather than acting to stop it, worked to ensure that the housing could come and that the setting of Oxford could be preserved with access to green open spaces and the countryside provided as the green lungs of the City.   

In 2020, this could all have been written yesterday. For Oxford is set to grow again, as Oxfordshire’s planning authorities have succumbed to the pressure to allocate land in the Green Belt and on greenfield sites to meet their own housing needs and those of Oxford City. The scale of the housing need is vast and, as I have watched and taken part in the local plan examination for all the Districts, I have seen how the discussions have focused on high property prices – concluding that this is an exceptional circumstance, such that large scale housing sites should be allowed on the edge of the City and surrounding towns and villages. For better or worse, these decisions have largely been taken and we will all now share in the consequences as the diggers move in to develop the sites on our green and luscious fields. And we must all be aware of the size, scale, and density of these developments, as all are encouraged to address the housing crisis by maximizing on the number of houses to be built on any one site.

OPT has first-hand experience of what is happening through recent approaches made to us by landowners and developers, anxious to discuss the plans and designs for their individual sites; talking of the importance of green space to good placemaking and the health and wellbeing of new and existing residents. All too often these approaches have proved disappointing in being short-term and internal looking, such as some community open space or funding for new and improved school playing fields. As yet, we have heard no one mention the Government’s policy of Biodiversity Net Gain and the landowner’s duty to provide compensation for the loss of green fields, nor of any joined up thinking about the cumulative impact of these large sites, of how they link to other sites within their district and within Oxfordshire as a whole.

When the development happened in 1927, OPT began to acquire or was gifted land which we still own or have covenants over. Today, we care for around 1000 acres in the City and its immediate surrounds, much of it within the Green Belt. When lockdown happened, we wanted to make our contribution where we could, and so regardless of the difficulties and financial implications, it was our privilege and pleasure to keep all this land open. And so, we have been able to see and sense at first hand the important role that open green space plays in all our lives, over and above simply keeping areas free from built development. Our land contributes to maintaining and enhancing the historic setting on the edge of Oxford, preserves the landscape and important views; has important environmental conservation benefits and plays its part in the health of us all by forming essential green lungs.

We can understand what has happened in the effort to provide people with the homes that they need, but we worry that there has not been equal thought given to how we ensure that what is done provides biodiversity gains on the land that remains, or protects the remaining land from being built upon in its turn. And we no longer accept that designating land as Green Belt provides long-term protection when we have seen it so readily removed for housing through the raft of recently, or soon to be, adopted Local Plans.

OPT is here for Oxford and its setting, and in the long-term. We own and manage land and have the professionalism, the expertise, and the longevity to ensure that where developers really mean that they want to keep green spaces open and create healthy places for people to live in, they can do so – and not just now, but forever. OPT can own land, it can have legal covenants to protect it, and can help to manage the land to ensure that it is well cared for and able to add to the green agenda, and at a reasonable cost. We will write to all of the Local Authorities, the landowners, the developers, and the stakeholders to suggest that they work with us, just as the City came together to do in the setting up of OPT all those years ago. We hope that they will engage with us so that we can do our job and together we can ensure that the City remains a wonderful and healthy place to live, with good access to the countryside and open green space for Oxford people to walk on and enjoy now and forever.