On the route of the ‘Varsity Expressway’, fears grow of a tarmac hell
Patrick Barkham visits rural communities reacting to news of the planned road link between Oxford and Cambridge, and finds that a revolt is brewing
It is a slow meander through the ancient royal hunting forest of Bernwood from tranquil North Buckinghamshire to the water meadows of Oxford. And it is hard to find any local residents in favour of speeding up this journey. In Grendon Underwood, Emma Dearn is pinning up notices for the idyllic village’s first ever “jumble trail”. She is aghast at the government’s announcement last week of its preferred route for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway.
“We are a bit dumped-on around here,” she says. “We’ve got HS2, an incinerator, east-west rail and then Milton Keynes and Bicester becoming cities. Green and pleasant land, eh? It will be tarmac everywhere.”
In nearby Finemere Wood – where rare Bechstein’s bats will be affected by HS2 when the trains rush past its boundary – volunteers are scything wildflower meadows. The expressway “is sheer folly” says David Richardson. To lose this countryside “would be sacrilege. What happens to the wildlife? What happens to open spaces? We need open spaces and we need wildlife to remind us that we’re human.”
The motorway-style road – part of what the Treasury boasts is the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s – is more than just a highway. Its government advocates want it to form the backbone of “the brain-belt” linking the two university cities and their burgeoning hitech businesses. And they hope it could solve the south-east’s housing crisis. Kit Malthouse, the housing minister, has asked brain-belt councils and landowners, including Oxbridge colleges, to identify land along the expressway corridor for one million new homes by 2050.
But there has been a revolt against the 35-mile link between Milton Keynes and Oxford, with fears it will facilitate new towns on an unprecedented scale – with Oxfordshire already building 100,000 new homes by 2030. Opponents formed a No Expressway Alliance last week as suspicions mounted that the road and homes are being pushed by the Oxfordshire Growth Board, a coalition of elected council leaders and unelected “strategic partners” including the University of Oxford and the Local Enterprise Partnership, OxLep.
“Milton Keynes was planned,” says Antony Melville, an Oxford resident who launched a petition against the expressway. “This is sub-Brexit idiocy – extraordinarily incompetent, completely slapdash, back-of-the-envelope stuff. Oxfordshire is being run by the Oxfordshire Growth Board. They are the only people producing strategy and it’s not strategy, it’s rubbish – it’s ‘how do we get “growth” into every paragraph?’”
The government’s preferred “corridor B” for the expressway runs from Milton Keynes past Bicester, with the road then either looping around north-west Oxford or cutting across the south. While corridor B spares Otmoor – a wetland east of Oxford which campaigners saved from the M40 in the 1980s – both options around Oxford imperil wildlife-rich green spaces.
West of Oxford are Thameside water meadows and Wytham Woods, home to decades of groundbreaking research by Oxford ecologists. But Peter Rutt, who leads a coalition of South Oxfordshire villages against the expressway, points out that the tranquil water meadows of the Thames valley are threatened by the southerly route. “Wildlife doesn’t do postcodes,” he says. “The authorities are talking about doubling our population without asking us. It’s beyond belief.”
According to Mark Vallance, reserves manager for the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, one problem is that road planners only veer their pens away from Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) which are legally protected; the rest of the countryside is, in effect, blank white space.
Vallance walks through the unspoilt meadows of the upper River Ray, home to one of southern England’s last breeding populations of curlew. “Many of these are better than any SSSIs but this area doesn’t have many of those designations,” he says. Even so, the Wildlife Trust’s advice that corridor B was by far the most environmentally damaging of the three potential corridors – affecting 20 nature reserves, 51 SSSIs and 345 local wildlife sites – was ignored by Highways England. After a precise route is drawn up within corridor B, it will go to a public consultation next year.
“We’re going to challenge it every step of the way,” says Estelle Bailey, the Trust’s chief executive. “It’s very likely there will be a legal challenge and we’re happy to see it go forward to judicial review if necessary.”
Campaigners are considering a legal challenge because they say due process was not followed, with Highways England failing to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment before issuing plans for corridor B. According to Highways England, an SEA is not necessary for this particular project and HS2 didn’t conduct one either.
Chris Church of Oxford Friends of the Earth and a veteran of 1980s road campaigns, says: “We have to make this so politically toxic that no one will pin their flag to it. We also need to demonstrate that there are viable alternatives.”
According to Church, these include the Varsity rail link to restore direct Oxford-Cambridge trains, and developing brownfield sites and rezoning underused retail parks for housing in Oxford to put affordable homes where jobs are.
But Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East, says Oxford’s “extreme” housing crisis cannot be solved by
simply building higher or providing family homes over city park-andride car-parks.
“If this [expressway] does deliver affordable homes that are in the right place, I can’t look my constituents in the eye and say I’m against it. But this project will be a disaster if all we get is expensive executive homes. It has got to deliver affordable homes that are accessible through public transport.”
Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire county council, says the expressway is not just about quicker journey times to Cambridge but will alleviate chronic congestion on the A34 near Oxford. While critics say it makes a mockery of Oxfordshire’s commitment to reduce carbon emis- sions by 80% by 2050, Hudspeth says the road could feature autonomous electric vehicles. He dismisses claims that the Oxfordshire Growth Board is undemocratic, saying: “The voting members are all democratically elected and therefore accountable for everything.
“The growth board don’t determine the local [housing] plans, they are drawn up by the city and district councils based on housing numbers required for government policy. It’s good to have representatives of the clinical commissioning group, the Environment Agency and the local enterprise partnership.”
He adds: “We should all stand back and say, ‘What’s the biggest strategic benefit to Oxfordshire?’”
Mark Vallance says his trust’s advice was ignored. Below, the ‘dreaming spires’ of the Oxford skyline.