Oxford City Deal approved, but at what cost to the county?

Hulton Park

19th February 2013

Photo: © Jane Tomlinson

Earlier this week Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg approved the ‘City Deal’ for Oxford. But what does it actually mean?

The Deal would create in Oxfordshire a ‘knowledge-based economy’ and it could make millions of pounds available to fund huge transport and infrastructure projects in the county.

Free money to help Oxfordshire grow! Sounds too good to be true. And it probably is, because it comes with all sorts of vague promises and talk of details yet to be decided. Essentially it gives enhanced decision-making powers to the area concerned, in return for commitments to development. However, it is not clear how proposed plans will be approved or where public consultation fits into this.

Here’s what we know:
  • The ‘Oxford City Deal’ application was prepared behind closed doors and submitted to Government with no public consultation.
  • This Deal potentially allows huge areas to be developed with little or no public consultation.  
  • The Deal will potentially give control of large swathes of Oxfordshire away from elected Councils to an unelected QUANGO.
  • The City Deal board looks like it will dominated by the City Council and the University, both of which are major landowners. Other District Councils would be represented on the board, but are likely to be outnumbered.
Be in no doubt, we welcome ways to enhance and boost the county’s economy, especially the rural economy. But this can and must be done without threatening our countryside, particularly the Oxford Green Belt that both creates the city’s historic setting and protects surrounding villages. 

In an earlier news item we warned of:

The risk of large scale development with no public consultation
The City Deal mentions a considerable amount of development which is not at the moment in any approved or emerging District Council development plans, such as extension of science parks and another 8,000 houses. It is not clear how this would be progressed. Normally applications are made to, and determined by, Local Authorities with full public involvement. Here the development proposals are effectively being made by the City Deal Board which would itself have the power to ‘take binding decisions across Local Authorities’. It is not clear whether the public would have any say in these developments at all, which might well be decided by a majority vote of the Board even if the relevant Local Authority was strongly opposed.

Threats to the Oxford Green Belt
Much of the proposed City Deal area is also Oxford Green Belt, and yet this is not mentioned once within the document.  The Deal outlines developments such as extending the Magdalen Science Park which could only be into the Green Belt, without mentioning the Green Belt constraints reconfirmed in the National Planning Policy Framework. It is hard not to see the failure to mention the Green Belt as ominous, especially given the City’s well-known ambitions to extend across it, not least as Green Belt landowners themselves.

Threats to the Northern Gateway Area Action Plan
The City Deal proposes introducing ‘simplified planning’ processes for the Northern Gateway. This could mean the end of local consultation and would be of huge concern to the surrounding community, especially given the threat to the integrity of Port Meadow, a site of special nature conservation.

If the price of the Deal is a loss of public consultation and democratic processes, leading to unacceptable changes in the character of our county, we think that’s a price too high.
Further info:  Nick Clegg’s speech announcing 20 new City Deals, 18 Feb (Cabinet Office Website)