Britain’s first garden town: housing crisis solution or ‘dog’s breakfast’?
The Guardian, 20 January 2016
Fluorescent-jacketed workers, tower cranes, uprooted trees, steel skeletons of new warehouses and half-completed cul-de-sacs: the view from Bicester’s ring road is of green fields being rapidly colonised by grey buildings. Just as new constructions rise every day, so some residents are roused into action almost daily to question the transformation of their market town in Oxfordshire.
A week before we meet, Pam Roberts won a small victory when a proposal was defeated for a pizza takeaway opposite her home. The week we meet, a developer has launched a legal challenge to the district council’s decision not to allow building on a “conservation target area” – and the fate of beautiful, flower-rich Gavray Meadows on the southern edge of Bicester now hangs in the balance.
The developments around Bicester may look like every other – boxy detached homes on small plots, out-of-town supermarkets – but Bicester claims unique status. The government has made it Britain’s only “garden town”. Together with the “garden city” being constructed at Ebbsfleet in the Thames Valley, Bicester must provide thousands of urgently-needed new homes in the south-east.
Garden cities have been a popular concept ever since shorthand typist Ebenezer Howard’s vision for a utopian alternative to industrial slums at the dawn of the 20th century led to the generous public spaces and leafy avenues of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. A new generation of garden cities – built largely on green fields – has been hailed as a solution to the housing crisis, or at least a good way of selling big new developments to an often sceptical public. Are local people persuaded that Bicester can become a garden town? Or is it just a rebrand for unsustainable, sprawling dormitory suburbs?
For centuries, Bicester was a sleepy market town. Handsome houses in Cotswold stone still adorn the centre; the name of its pedestrianised thoroughfare, Sheep Street, reveals its past as a livestock market. A large ordnance depot with Ministry of Defence jobs caused it to grow rapidly in the 1940s and 50s. It grew again after the construction of the M40 connected Bicester to London as well as Birmingham and Oxford. Thirty years ago, Bicester’s population was 17,500; it is now more than 30,000. Over the next two decades, it will double again if the 13,000 new homes planned for the town get built. A year ago, Bicester was designated a “garden town”: it potentially means £100m of central government funds towards new infrastructure.
On a map, Bicester looks an ideal location for new homes. It’s in the heart of England, within the “golden triangle” created by Oxford, Cambridge and London, with direct trains taking less than an hour to London, and Birmingham and the M40 nearby. Bicester Town railway station has been rebranded Bicester Village – after the discount designer outlet which attracts more annual visitors (6 million) than the Natural History Museum – and a small stretch of track added to provide a new rail link to Oxford and a second line to London, which opened this autumn. Coming next is East West Rail linking Oxford to Milton Keynes and Cambridge. Land around the town has been divided into 13 development sectors: Bicester 1 is an “eco-town” where each new home comes with solar panels and a fruit tree; Bicester 2 is Britain’s largest self-build development at Graven Hill, an attractively wooded former MoD site where 1,900 families can buy a plot and build their own grand design. The first 10 self-builders go on site next spring and will star in a Grand Designs special about their exciting projects.
On the ground, however, not everything in Bicester’s garden is rosy. Development land next to Bicester 3 is generic homes with a new Premier Inn and Brewers Fare pub nearby; Bicester 4 contains a new Tesco. Local people complain about gridlock and fear the traffic will worsen: the new rail connections will ultimately close the level crossing on the main road into town for 40 minutes of every hour. There is anger over the proposed choice of routes for a new relief road (“It’s like being asked do you want to be shot or hanged?” says one resident) and fury that homes will be dwarfed by cavernous new warehouses in Bicester 12, “the garden sheds of the garden town,” as Roberts puts it. “The original concept of a garden city was houses kept away from industry with large gardens and plenty of open spaces,” says Pat Clissold, who walks around threatened Gavray Meadows every day. “We have houses backing on to trunk roads next to warehouses, mimicking a Victorian city. The label ‘garden city’ has misled people.”
Not everyone hates the development of Bicester. Local resident David Richards says there is still a lot of green space. “If you’ve got a dog you can walk almost right round Bicester. People don’t move to Bicester thinking, ‘We must move to Bicester because it’s a lovely town.’ You move for different reasons but after a couple of years you think, ‘It’s not a bad town.’ My wife, wild horses wouldn’t drag her away from here.” But even Richards thinks that houses are being built before infrastructure. And infrastructure isn’t keeping pace: the town’s old hospital had 11 beds; its new hospital 12 beds. Bicester has 30,000 residents but just one butcher and no independent greengrocer – testimony to the dominance of the new Sainsbury’s in its centre and Tesco on its edge. “It’s different developers, different landowners, no joined-up thinking,” says another local resident, Susan Hall. “It’s piecemeal. ‘Dog’s breakfast’ springs to mind.”
Garden cities are usually planned and built by all-powerful development corporations. Ebbsfleet has an urban development corporation to co-ordinate its growth but Bicester doesn’t. Nevertheless, Barry Wood, leader of Cherwell district council, argues that a “strategic delivery board” of district and county councillors, businesspeople and officials from the likes of the Environment Agency, performs a comparable role, “integrating all the little bits. There is no piecemealism. There is no ‘They are making all this up as they go along’. The whole business is very well managed but we can never please all the people all the time. Some people in Bicester want to make it go backwards to the 1970s. We have to manage where Bicester is going, not where it’s come from.”
According to Wood, the council is “currently refreshing our vision for Bicester so that it incorporates our designation as a garden town through engagement with stakeholders”. Residents can fill in a “light touch” questionnaire; so can local businesses; a draft “vision” for the garden town will be published next spring. What about the suspicions “garden town” is just a marketing exercise? “People are suspicious about everything,” says Wood. “Garden town status means we’re going to build a high-quality, low carbon sustainable town. It will improve the quality of life for all the residents, new and existing. What’s the problem with that?”
For critics of Bicester’s growth, the place where “garden town” rings most hollow is Gavray Meadows, or Bicester 13 as it is known on planners’ maps. In 1998, archaeologists employed Dominic Woodfield to conduct a hedgerow survey there. The ecologist discovered an overlooked paradise: ancient medieval green lanes running through boggy grassland filled with devil’s-bit scabious, sneezewort, pepper saxifrage and numerous orchids and other wild flowers, the low hummocks of medieval ridge-and-furrow farming still visible. “You just don’t find this stuff any more. This is too good to lose,” he says when we meet at the site. Thick blackthorn hedges have turned the green lanes into tunnels; rare butterflies, including black and brown hairstreaks, breed here; it is also home to grasshopper warblers, buzzards, forester moths, woodpeckers, bats and barn owls. The many ponds contain great-crested newts, a highly-protected animal and bete noire for housebuilders.
Thanks to Woodfield, part of Gavray was designated a local wildlife site in 2002. So he was stunned when he passed by a couple of years later and saw a planning application for 500 homes on the site. Woodfield was even more fired up when he spotted a marsh fritillary butterfly – a species thought to be extinct in Oxfordshire. He was accused of planting the butterfly during an acrimonious legal battle but caterpillars were also found at Gavray and, eventually, the lone ecologist triumphed: the development was thwarted in the high court.
As virtually the only wild green space remaining inside Bicester’s ring road, Gavray’s time has come again: 300 homes are designated for Bicester 13. The developer, Gallagher Estates, has applied for 180 homes on an arable field west of the local wildlife site. Local campaigners fear that so many new homes next door will damage the local wildlife site. Worse, 120 homes will still have to be built – either on the local wildlife site or over equally lovely adjacent meadows. Nearly 1,500 people have signed a petition to save the meadows; the town council supports it. “What an asset,” says Roberts. “It’s an equivalent to Christchurch Meadow in Oxfordshire. It should be kept for health and wellbeing and for the pride of the town.”
In many ways, Bicester is not unique but perfectly representative of the pressure on local authorities across England to build more homes. The 13,000 homes are not forced upon it by its “garden town” status but have been allocated by Cherwell district council in its local plan, which all councils must produce if they don’t want a developers’ free-for-all. In Bicester, as across the rest of England, high housing targets are driven by genuine need but also by the priorities set by unelected, unaccountable groups of businesspeople: Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Bicester must take so many homes because the Oxfordshire Growth Board, a joint committee of the six councils of Oxfordshire, commissioned a strategic housing market assessment to determine the county’s housing needs. This assessment is strongly influenced by the LEPs, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. “Housing targets are very much informed by the LEPs’ growth aspirations and these growth aspirations aren’t informed by a county’s capacity to take that growth,” says Matt Thomson, head of planning at the CPRE. “LEPs do all their work on aspirations for economic growth without considering the environment or social impacts but also without any public imput. There’s no consultation, there’s no accountability.”
The housing target for Oxfordshire is particularly ambitious: 100,000 new homes by 2030 – increasing the county’s population by a third. Thomson doesn’t think it will be possible to build homes at double the highest-ever previous rate. If those targets are unrealistic, what’s the problem? “By setting very high targets you have to identify lots of sites. Once those sites are identified, builders will choose the ones that are cheapest to buy and most profitable to build on – greenfield sites,” says Thomson. Cherry-picking the best sites will create unnecessary sprawl, a lack of affordable homes and half-built estates badly served by infrastructure.
On Gavray Meadows, local campaigners now find themselves almost on the same side as the district council, which is opposed to a bid by developers to build on a large chunk of the green space. The site’s future will be decided in court next month but Roberts feels that Bicester garden town could – and should – be so much better. She points out the new railway station with its north-facing roof, useless for solar panels. We visit the eco-town which claims to be “redefining 21st century living”: it is pleasant but the houses are still heated by gas. For Roberts, the credibility of Bicester’s status as a garden town – and much more besides – rests on the fate of Gavray Meadows. “We’re Bicester garden town,” she says. “Why not have some gardens?”