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

The Observer - - Focus -

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?’”

Pho­to­graphs by Sarah Lee for the Ob­server, Getty

Mark Val­lance says his trust’s ad­vice was ig­nored. Be­low, the ‘dream­ing spires’ of the Ox­ford sky­line.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.