Planning in Wonderland – turning the Vale into a World of Empty Houses and Gridlock

Alice in WonderlandAnother major road is about to be closed in Oxfordshire.  This time the plan is to close Steventon High Street for 10 months while the charming Victorian brickwork is  replaced with a generic modernist eyesore.   The closure will bring enormous hardship to local people and businesses, harm that could be mitigated by sensible planning and coordination.

Yet, instead of reopening a disused slip-road of the A34 to relieve the pressure; Oxfordshire County Council and the Highways Agency will be undertaking major works on the Milton Interchange resulting in greater traffic disruption in the area.

Instead of installing a wider bridge to allow the installation of another set of tracks to help increase capacity on the Great Western line; Network Rail will put in a structure that will house one up and one down line.

This second point has got me particularly riled.  While a traffic nightmare is being played out across the county to accommodate improvements to the railway, the Vale of White Horse District Council is consulting on its Local Plan to 2031.  You’ll have to bear with me while I explain the background to the Local Plan before I tell you why this railway bridge is so important.

As has been extensively reported, the plan commits the Vale to build enormous numbers of houses in the next 15 years, primarily around existing towns such as Faringdon, Wantage, Grove and Didcot.  I am extremely grateful to Wantage and Grove Campaign Group for their briefing which walked us through the disaster that led to this building strategy.

The housing figures arise as a result of the Local Enterprise Partnership projection that there will be 23,000 new jobs created in the Vale by 2031.  This is a hugely optimistic figure which appears to contain a good amount of double counting as well as assuming consistent economic growth through that period.  Essentially this figure was produced to attract government funding to the area, so understandably those producing the paper were inclined to present the rosiest possible figures.   Wantage and Grove Campaign Group’s analysis shows that even the baselines are more optimistic than government figures, and are we really sure that everyone that takes a job in the Vale is going to live in the Vale?

From this extraordinary prediction of jobs, comes the Strategic Housing Market Association prediction of the need for 20,560 new homes in the Vale.  So firstly we don’t think all these jobs will be there.  Secondly it is unlikely that the demand for housing will be a straight-line conversion from the number of jobs.  Thirdly the prediction requires building at a rate of 1500 a year, when the number of homes completed at the height of the boom was 570.   The homes are therefore unlikely to be built in any case

Nevertheless, based on these figures, VOWHDC have produced their plan to deliver 20,560 homes.  It involves a lot of land being designated for housing.  That in itself will create huge tension and dissatisfaction within communities asked to accept this additional housing.  Given that the housing is unlikely to be actually needed, some of these sites will remain designated and with planning permission, but without houses on them.   Adjacent homes will be blighted by the threat of living next to a building site for years.  Or perhaps the government will continue to subsidise people to buy the houses, artificially supporting prices?

More important than the land designated for housing is the lack of land designated for employment.  Because of this extraordinary demand for housing land, there is little space left for jobs and so many towns are expected to become dormitories for the science parks or cities that workers will travel to.

And this brings me back to the railway bridge.  Traffic between Wantage, Grove and Didcot is already gridlocked most mornings and evenings.  Even without OCC’s never-ending road works, getting to work by car in Oxfordshire is a trial by endurance on most days.  The additional housing being planned by VOWHDC comes without adequate provision for improvements to roads (particularly the A417) and more scandalously does not have specific plans to deliver a rail service between Grove, Milton and Didcot.

Of course, the railway already runs along this route, but it is a designated 125mph line and Network Rail have refused to allow stopping trains to use it.  On that basis, while the electrification works progress, the canny folks at Network Rail have conspired to install a new bridge at Steventon that (while not entirely preventing it) does not allow for the capacity to accommodate a second set of tracks that could run a decent stopping service.  Network Rail get to preserve the status quo, and motorists are left suffering the short-term closure and the lack of a long-term alternative.

Without trains, the extra 5,500 homes that will be built around Wantage and Grove will house people working in the science parks at Milton and Harwell who must primarily drive to work.

THIS IS MADNESS!!

Even if the homes don’t get built on the scale we expect, the A417 is already full to capacity.  We have a railway that runs the same route and with some investment could provide the transport solutions we need in this part of the County.  It is not good enough to say that it would disrupt Network Rail’s timetabling.

If the Vale and OCC honestly believe their own jobs and housing projections, they should be investing, and forcing Network Rail to invest, in providing the capacity to accommodate those extra people.

By failing to do so at Steventon we can only assume that they either (a) don’t believe their own numbers or (b) lack the political will to stand up for the people living in these communities and help deliver a future that does not involve sitting in traffic for 3 hours a day.

Either way we need better planning from our District representatives.

This Local Plan is a jaunt into a world of make-believe where the only sobering reality is gridlock.

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