It’s rare for me to write about the same subject two months in a row but in the last week, Bicester’s Eco Town and the infrastructure that goes with it has once again showed the hallmark of planning failure with what could be disastrous consequences.
Last month I covered concerns about the proposal to build more warehouses at the Howes Lane/Middleton Road junction with a loss of proposed open space and housing. Now it appears that realigning Howes Lane/Lords Lane – the Strategic Link Road (SLR) – planned for completion by March 2023 to serve the Eco Town, and on which this new warehouse development was to be located, has been postponed to an as yet unknown future date.
Apparently, the estimated £15m cost of road construction, will be vastly exceeded and money originally allocated for it from the Government’s £150m Housing and Growth deal for Oxfordshire will instead support the delivery of housing in Abingdon and Didcot. Since the money has to be spent within a specific time frame, Bicester’s housing contribution will be 200 less than that in the other two towns over that period.
As the SLR supports the development of 6000 dwellings, a number of fears rear their ugly head. First, the sudden realisation that the road will cost more than the original estimate seems a colossal failure of planning. The plans realigning Howes and Lords Lanes date back to the 2015 Local Plan and the new bridge carrying the railway over the line of the new road was completed in April this year. Surely, when investigating the route of that new road, those issues now causing delay – the need for a compulsory purchase order and additional drainage works – were known and should have been dealt with before the bridge was built?
Second, postponing the SLR calls into question the Eco Town development timescale. Remember, this is the crown jewel in terms of sustainable housing development on a large scale in Bicester as well as meeting Cherwell’s 2030 housing commitment for Bicester in the Local Plan.. The delay may prevent development for some years and remember that Cherwell is required by Government to meet its 2030 housing target. Will this mean housing developed as a result of speculative planning applications in order to meet the Council’s Local Plan housing targets?
Third, its not clear at this stage (on OCCs own admission) precisely where the £15m the town has now lost, plus whatever additional expenditure is needed for the SLR, will actually come from. What priority will it get from OCC and who is going to fund it? One option is to ask developers to pay for, or contribute to, highways infrastructure associated with development but that has to be negotiated and takes time. The track record nationally in extracting such levies shows that it isn’t easy and there is always a price to pay since developers will expect some concessions in return; a reduction in the proportion of ‘affordable housing’ in a housing development for example.
Finally, does the SLR delay mean the proposed new warehousing at the Howes Lane/Middleton Road roundabout will be refused? If not (I wouldn’t bet against it), the additional traffic on Howes Lane/Lords Lane, not to mention the road to Middleton Stoney and B430, could be detrimental to air quality and the environment, increase congestion and the risk of accidents, and adversely affect local roads and residents. It would be helpful if our MP could support her Bicester constituents and resolve these problems.