Oxfordshire has grown spectacularly over the past few decades with more houses, more jobs, fewer people in poverty, and an increased standard of living for most.
But at what cost? Reducing air quality, increasing congestion and the gap between rich and poor increasing. So, is the economic growth that has given us all this a good or a bad thing?
It seems that it depends on what we mean by economic growth. If we mean, that in order to increase prosperity, there is no alternative to spreading ourselves further and gobbling up the earth’s resources ever faster, then the growing concerns over congestion, plastic and air pollution would suggest that we need to think carefully before we go for “growth at all costs”. I am no economist, but I understand that there is economic growth in science and technology allowing us to do things ever more efficiently. Such growth need not involve increasing consumption of the earth’s resources, we simply get more and more for our money by using resources more efficiently. And there is no evidence that the process is finite.
Somewhere, in all that, there might be an answer in how to continue growing whilst reducing pollution, reducing congestion and reducing poverty. Perhaps we need to redefine what we mean by “growth”.
“The Growth Board” (made up of council leaders and others) has received some bad press for seeming to be entirely about growth at all costs, more roads, more traffic and more pollution. Along with “The Growth Deal” (the agreement with Government to deliver 100,000 houses by 2030 in return for a contribution towards the cost of extra infrastructure), the Growth Board is seen as part of a relentless drive to destroy the County. If we were to redefine what we mean by “growth”, some of the potential benefits of the Growth Board might be more apparent. Getting leaders of all Oxfordshire councils together to address common problems and find common solutions should be a good thing. It would encourage joint planning of Oxfordshire’s housing, a joint approach to the Green Belt and be a bigger voice with Government than currently our six competing councils are able to achieve.
Oxfordshire is a major contributor to the national exchequer. It is understandable, therefore, that Government wishes to capitalize on the County’s economic success. This push for further rapid economic growth has been behind the proposals for the Expressway, the Reservoir and, via the “Growth Deal”, the push for accelerated housing growth. For many, it has seemed a little desperate – a push for Growth at all costs and impossible or irresponsible to challenge.
But two things have happened to change the argument. The first and most important by far was the UN Report on climate change. The impact on carbon output of major road building, reservoir building and quarrying has been little considered up to now. It is now under a sharp spotlight. Major infrastructure projects will now have to justify themselves in terms of carbon output. Some may well fail that test.
The second recent occurrence was our own local elections in Oxfordshire. Until then, Government had had a reasonably free ride with councils, mostly of the same political persuasion, being ready and willing to accept vast infrastructure projects and accelerated housing growth in return for the £215m offered by the Growth Deal. With two of Oxfordshire’s councils changing hands, that assumed willingness is cast into doubt.
Many questions will be asked, not least challenging the figures (the SHMA figures) on which all this growth is predicated. Every decision of the Growth Board (the leaders of all Oxfordshire’s councils) will have to be scrutinized very carefully. The way the Growth Board operates (with major decisions being made out of the public eye) is likely to have to change.
With a government under so much pressure on other fronts, it is at least likely that there will have to be a pause for reflection on the “Growth at all costs” agenda.
I have no doubt Oxfordshire residents will welcome that.
Given everything that is happening or is soon to happen locally and nationally, I am going to focus on a big issue for everyone in this division but an issue which has nothing to do with Brexit or local elections.
It is the Thames Water (TW) proposal for a new above ground reservoir between Steventon, Drayton, Marcham and East Hanney.
This proposal is the third such proposal since 1990. The last two were turned down. TW are now arguing that the water is needed to supply much of the South East of England –it will supply little, if any water to Oxfordshire.
There are 3 threads to the argument.
1. The first concerns the Science. Is a reservoir needed at all? The last TW proposal in 2007 was turned down emphatically because the case for need had not been met by TW. Would water transfer or desalination be a cheaper solution to water need. In the end, it is the scientists who must provide an answer - not just TW’s own scientists, but the well-funded and top-level scientists from GARD (Group against the Reservoir).
2. The second concerns the Law – in particular, the planning process which has to answer the question – Is this the best place for a reservoir? And what are the implications for traffic and the environment?
3. There is, however, a third issue which is often overlooked and unappreciated. It is the Politics surrounding the whole proposal. And it is the politics which worry me almost more than anything. The way that the legal process works at present is that TW first approaches the regulator OFWAT with its proposal. There is every reason for TW to want a reservoir – they will own it, and it will sit on their balance sheet giving them a major capital asset against which they can borrow. It will be paid for, as will the cost of all public consultation (glossy brochures etc) by TW ratepayers. At the 2007 TW proposal, OFWAT allowed TW to raise £45m from ratepayers – about half of which was used to pay for legal fees to fight TW’s case. When it came to a full legal enquiry, Councils trying to fight the proposal clubbed together to pay for legal representation. They managed to raise less than £1m - paid for through Oxfordshire residents’ council tax.
While water companies own assets that ratepayers pay for, and while legal fees on both sides are paid for by ratepayers and council tax payers, there is little disincentive for water companies to keep trying their luck every few years.
In France I understand that the state owns the assets such as reservoirs. Private companies are employed by the state to run such assets. Is this not a better, fairer, more sensible system?
In the past few weeks, I have had a moral dilemma. Brexit is not a subject for local Government or its representatives, and given the divisive nature of the subject, I have tried to steer well clear. The problem I face is that, as a leader of a political group on Oxfordshire County Council, I have been given briefings from officers charged by Government with investigating and assessing the potential impact of a “No Deal” outcome on Oxfordshire and its residents. As a wealthy, thriving county, the risks to Oxfordshire are overall deemed to be low compared to many other parts of the country. However, I have been told that there are real concerns over certain possible impacts. I am also instructed that all such information should be kept confidential. I am told that the reason for confidentiality is that we must not cause panic buying or queueing. But if we wind up with a “No Deal” conclusion, there might indeed be some panic. Indeed, I am aware of residents in my patch who have already stockpiled some food and medicines. I would argue that knowledge of the risks involved with “No Deal” and allowing that knowledge to be part of the argument now would in reality reduce the risk of panic.
I am well aware that some people will argue that what I have to say is simply one more manifestation of “Project Fear”. Or is it “Project Reality”? I have wrestled with that for some time.
I believe that the information I have been given, is both independent and a fair assessment of the risks. I have to try to balance my duty to those Oxfordshire residents who elected me against the Government instruction to respect confidentiality. Should I keep quiet and just hope that “No Deal” is rejected as an option anyway, or should I demand that such information be put out there as part of the conversation now, where it may influence people’s opinions?
What would I say to the residents who elected me when, in the event of a “No Deal” conclusion, I am challenged with “You knew there was a risk of this and didn’t tell us?”
I am not willing to stay silent for long but would welcome any constructive suggestions in the meantime.