A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed my first meeting of “The Growth Board”. Around a table sat all the great and the good from local government in Oxfordshire. The audience included representatives of Natural England, CPRE (Council for the Protection of Rural England) and various charities. The expenses bill for running such a meeting must have been eye-watering.
I expected to witness big issues being discussed and big decisions being taken. However, the agenda consisted of receiving reports and appeals for consideration from many worthy organisations. Clearly the big decisions and discussions were not going to happen in such a public meeting.
A new, and much needed Scrutiny Committee of the activities of the Growth Board is going to have its work cut out if it is only going to be allowed access to such public meetings of the Growth Board.
Of the many reports presented to the Board at the meeting, one that stood out for me was from “Active Oxford”.
It seems that child obesity is a growing and a particular problem in Oxfordshire.
It was that report that has prompted me to say something this month about cycling, an activity that would do much to help reduce child obesity as well as to encourage a healthier lifestyle for everyone. However, cycling in this county is beset with pitfalls. As an occasional and inexpert cyclist, I do not possess a single piece of Lycra, but I have firsthand experience of some of the issues facing cyclists in our congested county. Well meant, but underused and badly connected cycle paths that spill out onto busy roads – bridges where cyclists, pedestrians and drivers hurl abuse at each other because no one knows who has priority – lack of spaces in towns to park your bicycle – too narrow cycle lanes beside heavy traffic - I have experienced it all. The solutions are all costly and hence not enough is happening.
However, in Milton Park, we have a major employment area surrounded by thousands of homes within 3 or 4 miles. At present, cyclists have to brave congested roads to get to and from work. Unsurprisingly, very few parents are prepared to let their children loose on the roads. There are few encouragements to get us out of our cars and on to bicycles.
But it is not all hopeless:
MEPC already encourage all business on Milton Park to provide shower facilities for their staff. The proposed new cycle/pedestrian bridge from Milton Heights to Milton Park will make much of the route to/from work for residents safe for cyclists. There are stretches of pleasant, safe cycle paths between many of the villages and Milton Park. With help from local landowners, these stretches could be linked up. There are existing paths that could be made safer and relatively cheaper.
As “Active Oxford” argue, we cannot give up on this. Cycling is healthier for each of us and healthier for the planet.
Expressway - The decision on the preferred option (by Highways England at least) for the proposed Oxford – Cambridge Expressway has been announced as “Route B”. All this tells us is that the road will not cut through miles of open countryside in South Oxfordshire nor take a very wide northerly sweep above Oxford airport. Otherwise, we (including OCC Highways department) are in the dark on any further detail. OCC have responded by saying that they cannot give any detailed response as to how the impact could be managed until there is more clarity on the route and the traffic data on which the decisions are based. At least HE is now aware that a very thorough and contentious consultation will have to be carried out urgently. This will, at least give us all a chance to register our feelings on the proposal.
Boundary Review - Residents of Drayton, Milton, Marcham and Shippon will be interested to know that the latest Electoral Boundary Commissions firm recommendations are that all four villages will be moved from their current Wantage constituency into OXWAB – the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency.
Road Diversions - The road diversion in Sutton Courtenay caused by the new pipework needed by the warehouses and data centre, has resulted in massive disruption and anxiety in the area. Some livelihoods threatened, HGV restrictions being broken in Appleford, inconvenience to Sutton Courtenay Primary School so recently hit by the Carillion collapse and long queues at the junction of Park Drive and Milton High Street. OCC have the unenviable responsibility of trying to make the road system work when planning decisions are made. There is enormous pressure on the contractors to get the work done as soon as possible. Some of the problems are being solved – but the whole area is a traffic management nightmare. The nation, never mind Oxfordshire, depends on Milton Park continuing to thrive. District and County are going to have to restrict development more robustly in the future – at least until the Growth Deal has allowed major road improvements all around Milton Park to be made.
Hobbyhorse Lane, Sutton Courtenay - The original application having been withdrawn, all attention now falls on a second application (broadly the same as the first). OCC Highways maintains its objections and is preparing for an inquiry should an appeal be lodged.
Outline Business Case for a Science Bridge – be careful what we wish for! -
A HIF (Housing Infrastructure Bid) has been launched to help fund a bridge and river crossing – this will be considered around March 2019. However, the current objection by OCC Highways to further development in Sutton Courtenay could be removed if/when the funding for this bridge is delivered.
Last week, we met a friend, to whom we have not spoken for some time over the garden wall. We spent a happy twenty minutes catching up. Within the hour, we received a phone call from the same friend to tell us that she had just received a message from Google asking her to rate her visit to Orchard Barn (our home). The first reaction was to laugh, the second was to wonder how Google knew of our conversation. The third was to realize how much Goggle (and others) can find out about us via mobile phones, emails and social media. There was absolutely nothing in our conversation which would have interested anyone else; it was a private conversation. It’s a scary world!
Whilst I believe, passionately that Privacy is an important principle that we should do everything possible to protect, privacy is too often a defining principle in Government – both national and local. On a recent visit to Nottinghamshire County Council to find out how they run themselves, we were told that they are now passionate about openness and transparency. Everything they say, think and do is put in the public realm. No more secret papers. Salaries, plans for the future and failings of the Council are all published alongside their successes. The only papers kept from public view are those that concern commercial confidentiality (while bids for contracts are coming in) otherwise everything is open to public scrutiny. They claimed that this approach had already had three major benefits.
1. There was a noticeable increase in trust of their council by Nottinghamshire residents.
2. There were now no time-consuming and costly Freedom of Information requests.
3. Their relations with the local press had improved immeasurably.
To be fair to Oxfordshire, it is probably more open and transparent than many local authorities. Its new Corporate Plan will contain not only a list of the Council’s successes but also a list of its failures and what it intends to do about them. This is all commendable. Not so transparent are the conversations around shared services and management with Cherwell District Council, or the discussions around the Growth Deal and the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.
Until Government treats those who elected it as wholly deserving and capable of being involved in discussions and considerations of policy, they can hardly be surprised if they are not trusted.
Most residents are not particularly interested in how their councils organise themselves. But it is a matter of great concern for the councillors who serve on those councils.
Backbencher local politicians often get a raw deal. Whether their party is in power or in opposition, decisions are made by members of the Cabinet (rarely more than 10 members of the ruling party). All other politicians often feel that they are little more than voting fodder – expected to support their own side through thick and thin. Under the whipping system, there are occasions when they are under pressure from their own side to toe the party line – even though they may not agree with it.
This is the Cabinet System and is followed by most councils. Its advantage is that decisions are made efficiently and quickly. Its disadvantages are that only a very small proportion of councillors (the Cabinet) take part in the decision-making, and other councillors can become disillusioned with their role and enthusing potential new recruits gets harder.
In recent years, a number of councils have switched to an alternative system – the Committee System. Here, each council department has a Committee making the decisions - made up of councillors of all parties. The numbers on each Committee are set to ensure that they are in line with the proportion of councillors of each party. This ensures that the ruling party always has the ability to hold the majority on each Committee. The advantage of the system is that all Councillors sit on at least one Committee, all are involved in discussions, vote on decisions and all are obliged to work hard. The disadvantage is that decision making is slower.
Oxfordshire County Council is currently studying a number of councils which have switched to the Committee System. The evidence so far is that it particularly suits a council where there is an even balance of power between parties. Oxfordshire County Council is just one of those. A decision to change, if it happens, will be made next year.
There has been much talk of “The Growth Deal” – Government’s deal with Oxfordshire County Council in which Oxfordshire will get £215m towards infrastructure and affordable housing in exchange for undertaking to build 100,000 homes by 2031. More than a quarter have already been built and 5 out of 6 District Councils have already signed up to build the rest in their Local Plans. So this is just extra money we didn’t know we were getting, isn’t it? At last we can get some infrastructure before the housing goes up. True, it is predicted we need around £1.5b of infrastructure by 2031 but there are several other pots of money that could well raise another £0.6b, and Government says that the £215m is only a down payment. So it’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it?
Well, not everyone thinks so. The problem is that under the new NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) Oxfordshire’s target should be around 65,000 new homes by 2031 – not 100,000. The District Council’s Local Plans were formed on the old NPPF figures. Although many tried to challenge them at the time on the grounds that extra housing numbers for economic growth were wildly exaggerated, we were not allowed to do so. So the Government offer of £215m in return for building 35,000 more homes than their own figures say we need to, may not be quite the offer it first seemed. Have our council leaders sold us short? Given the dependence of Government on growth in Oxfordshire, should we not have asked for far more?
It seems a number of things could derail the Growth Deal.
1. Government has demanded as part of their offer that all Local Plans are in place within a year. Recent developments in South Oxfordshire make that highly unlikely. Council leaders are hoping that Government will give SODC more time.
2. It is not clear where the Deal would be if the “down payment” turns out to be all there is. Could the District Council claim that they are no longer obliged to deliver the extra housing?
3. What if there is a change of Government? 2031 is a long way away.
As a result of council pressure, a new combined Scrutiny Committee with representatives from all councils is being set up to scrutinize the Growth Deal and its progress. This is a most welcome development as too much has been discussed and decided behind closed doors. At last we should find out how the Deal was agreed, why it was signed and most importantly what the “get out” clauses say should happen if either side default.
Sutton Courtenay and Marcham Division
With Growth Deals, Expressways and Reservoirs, there is much to talk about affecting the residents of Oxfordshire. However, these issues will be occupying us for many more months and for that reason, I propose to give these issues, important though they are, a miss this month and focus on a long-standing issue that has affected us all for many years now – the issue of Enforcement.
There is a growing public perception that local councils are not willing or not prepared to carry out enforcement action to support their rules and regulations.
Complaints over the lack of enforcement of speed limits are increasingly common. The police will point out that their resources are increasingly stretched and that their priority is to cut crime.
With cutbacks in police numbers, council officers and environmental health officers, there are now many fewer people available to enforce our rules and regulations than ten years ago. There are fewer parking wardens on the street and more and more obstructive and anti-social parking. Complaints over noise and smells seem to take longer to resolve than ever before. Conditions applied to planning applications seem to be increasingly ignored or flouted.
All this leads to a lack of trust in and damage to the reputation of the authorities. Whereas shortage of funding and people has certainly not helped, and doubtless, the authorities have not always been as quick to or as keen to react to breaches of regulations as they might have been, there is, I believe a more striking reason for the perception that enforcement is not happening.
In almost all cases, the laws that support enforcement are too loose and not fierce enough. To persuade someone to abide by a regulation, the law often says that the public authority must have tried many times over a period to get the perpetrator to co-operate. Some offenders can play these laws to their advantage for years.
Planning in particular is beset with problems of this sort. Plans to build houses, waste disposal plants and quarries are always going to be contentious. An apparent reluctance by authorities to enforce conditions helps to bring the whole planning system and the planning authorities into disrepute.
Much of this could be solved by wholesale revision and tightening of the laws surrounding enforcement. With so much being planned for Oxfordshire, residents need to know that rules and regulations are there to be obeyed and will be strictly enforced.
“You can turn your back on a pothole. You cannot turn your back on a needy child.”
As we enter the end of a decade of austerity, Oxfordshire, along with many other councils responsible for Highways, has taken some tough decisions to protect our children’s and adult social services from the worst of the cost cutting - at the expense of the Highways budget. We now spend less than half what we spent on our roads and Highways 10 years ago. Meanwhile social service costs and demand go up and up.
There is, of course, a limit to how long we can continue to do this. Roads do not deteriorate at a steady rate. After a few years of neglect, the rate of deterioration falls off a cliff. And the cost of bringing the roads back into an acceptable condition escalate dramatically. In other words, our present policy of “managed decline” is inevitably storing up more and more trouble for the future. We are, potentially, handing over a massive problem for our children.
I find this very uncomfortable. So, what are the possible solutions?
First, if we can actually get the Growth Deal in place, the money it gives us to develop the major road network, will allow some of our present budget to be diverted to repairing the smaller A and B roads.
Secondly, whilst we demand that Government gives more money to the health service, more money to social services, more money to environmental protection and more money to education, we need to persuade them that there is now a major problem in underfunding of road maintenance.
Thirdly, councils – including Oxfordshire - need to be allowed and encouraged to borrow against their assets to spend money on roads. Every pound we spend keeping a road from falling off that cliff, is future pounds saved.
Without good roads, local economies cannot thrive. Building ever more houses without a safe, effective route to and from work will put people off coming to live here. It will also put off companies from setting up and staying here. Without good roads, our social services suffer as people find it harder to get to shops, to schools and to hospitals.
To bring our roads back to an acceptable condition will, it is estimated, cost more than £150 million – and that’s just Oxfordshire. We cannot wait for Elon Musk to fly us about in rockets or in supersonic underground tunnels, and we would all prefer not to have to risk our tyres and our suspension every time we take to the Highway.
Step one is for all of us, right up to Central Government to recognize the scale of the problem. We can hide from it no longer.
Many of us have been arguing for some time now that we cannot accept any more housing without more infrastructure – roads, schools, hospitals and so on. You may see figures above £5billion for the estimated cost of bringing our infrastructure into line with our present housing growth.
Point one seems to be that much of that infrastructure will come from sources already in place – s106 planning contributions and other government sources.
Point two is that the true figure of what extra money is needed to bring our infrastructure up to scratch is a more modest, but still eye-watering £1.5billion.
Point three - under the Growth Deal with Government, Oxfordshire Councils will be expected to deliver (as per their Local Plans – almost all in place) 100,000 houses by 2031, meanwhile Government will provide £215million over the next 5 years as “a down payment.” – i.e. about 1/5 of what is needed.
Accountants will spot that the £215million will be appearing within the first five years of the delivery plan. i.e. for the first time in years, there will be some of the much-needed infrastructure well before the houses appear. Furthermore, some of the hard-pressed OCC transport budget will be released to carry out much needed repairs to our roads and pavements. All good news.
But (there is always a but), the whole deal is based on the assumption that more money will be forthcoming (more than £1billion if my sums are right) if infrastructure is ever going to catch up and match housing growth.
So, there are risks to all this. Here are a few I can see:
What if we cannot build houses at the right rate?
What if the Government fails to come up with the rest of the money?
What if there are changes of Government between now and 2031?
Are there enough opt out/break clauses in the agreement if either side defaults?
Will the arrival of new infrastructure simply herald a Government demand for yet more houses?
Is it absolutely clear that the Growth Deal has nothing, but nothing to do with the Oxford Cambridge Expressway and its predicted
1 million houses, and that neither is conditional on the other?
The Oxfordshire Growth Deal has been signed with almost indecent haste and no consultation with Oxfordshire residents. We must all hope that all these risks have been taken into account and covered.
Please forgive yet another article on planning and development; I will try to find something else to write about in future. It may not be easy.
The impact of development on Drayton Road and its Neighbourhood Plan, the impact of development on the A415 through Marcham, Barrow Road and the Marcham AQMA, the impact of development in Sutton Courtenay on Culham Bridge and the A34; itself already under extreme stress running through the middle of it all - it sometimes seems as if this County Division, of which we are all part, is being singled out for very special treatment. The truth is, of course, that many parts of the south of England are under similar stress.
However, with our very low unemployment and our local economy thriving, Government is wanting, expecting and depending on us to grow. For almost the first time, the stresses – particularly on our road system - are now so obvious and so acute that Government is realizing that without more infrastructure, there are fewer and fewer sensible places to put the nation’s much needed extra housing. Money has to be found and the calls for infrastructure before housing are becoming ever louder and more persuasive.
Hence, the “Growth Deal” - an initial “down payment” (Government term, not mine) of £215m over 5 years, to help us cope with all the housing our councils are already committed to - may not be enough, but it’s a start. Given that our housing is due to be delivered over the next 13 years, it appears that, if the deal is signed, there is the prospect of some infrastructure before houses. This is something we have been requesting for many years now.
On 23 January, a planning appeal hearing began over 2 potential major developments in Sutton Courtenay. The OCC Highway officer’s view is that the road network will not cope, at least not until a new bridge over the Thames has been built. This might happen in five years at the earliest. The planning appeal is due to last at least 8 days, we are told. We will know if the Growth Deal is to be signed on 01 February. The timing of all this and the planning decision is going to be highly significant. The result, however it goes, will impact not just on Sutton Courtenay and the immediate villages around, but on the whole of Oxfordshire and almost certainly on planning in the whole of the south of England. I would urge all those with an interest in planning and housing to join me in watching the progress of that appeal very closely.