The weekend saw a desultory rally of assorted anti-neighbour groups in Woodstock, following their “parish poll” to decide whether they should continue to oppose new housing near the town. This was reported on by the Oxford Mail, and has generated an assortment of comments. I thought it would be good to post one of my more strident ones here, just for posterity, so to speak! It also gels with some of my current reading, Sir Peter Hall’s “Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design since 1880“…
Nothing has done more to encourage my abjuration of the political system than seeing up close how the planning system is robbing so many people of the fruits of their labours in making and keeping this city internationally respected, whilst making many others wealthy off the sweat of those effectively excluded by the city they love and work in and for.
Until Abercrombie, Chamberlain and company reworked the concept of Green Belts as a way of penning the hoi-polloi into as small a part of the country as they could get away with and still ensure rich pickings for landowners, “Ebenezer, the Garden City Geezer” conceived of them for the people they enveloped in nature in his anarchic countryside communities compared with the inner cities they had escaped from. I rather think he would be appalled now at the costs many of them are wreaking on those in inadequate, overpriced housing he aimed at helping. Perhaps especially Oxford’s, which as a city of 45 sq km could hardly be described as “sprawling” even when it was locked into its politically motivated chastity belt, and is the stand out example of landed interests ensuring, even insuring their future prospects and condemning the people within it.
Oxford’s Green Belt imposes an unacceptable robbery on those who pay more than they ought to be for housing inside it, or an effective 20% extra time-tax in commuting past it if they do want the unimaginable luxury of a life of debt to pay for their “own home” beyond it. That robbery, and the huge inequalities of wealth it exacerbates, cannot be allowed to continue, not least for the health and future prospects of this city.
Real people, trying to make a meagre way here in Oxford, cannot wait for the great and the good to sort out London’s problems, or for a policy of building upwards not outwards to be passed and then to start to densify existing residential areas of the city. Though that is a welcome part of the solution – I always like to remind people that at the density of one of the most beautiful cities on earth, Paris, Oxford even at its current size would accommodate a million people – it is certainly not a quick one.
It needs a pressure valve. Not, to be sure, the endless homogenous acres of faceless estate tagged onto the city and taking a decade or more to even start digging, by which time any value it had as a pressure valve is long dissipated. But targeted and frequent enough land release such that land values outside the city fall, as the great “prize” hope of being the one chosen landowner to be allowed to sell at 100 times their agricultural value disappears. But that difference in price is, let’s face it, what the CPRE was set up to protect. So I wouldn’t expect support for such a release to come from them, inside or outside the city.
But those who align with them, thinking they are doing something toward a resolution of the pain of their family, co-workers and all those less fortunate than their well-housed selves, ought to understand the interests they are aligned with. While you form groups and wave flags in Georgian town squares to which most of us can only aspire, there are many people being robbed blind and it cannot go on.