The Northern Gateway - Why Object?
The ‘Northern Gateway’ is a proposed 100-acre Business Park, to be built on green land and some Green Belt, between Pear Tree and Wolvercote on the Northern rural fringes of Oxford. Local people know little detail about it since almost no information has been handed out by the City Council or developers.
The proposed ‘Northern Gateway’ is part of Oxford City Council’s ‘Core Strategy’, a blueprint for the development of Oxford until 2026. The City Council hopes to swell the city by forcing the development of large single-use zones on greenfield land around its edge. The developers, Goodman Ltd and Kier Property, plan that the ‘Northern Gateway’ become a Business & Retail zone which potentially could grow to 98,000 m2 of offices, enough for around 8,000 workers in buildings at least three storeys tall. They also plan 3500m2 of retail space: enough for a giant superstore or 30 smaller shops, a hotel and 200 or more houses. The zoning proposals have been agreed, in principle, by the Planning Inspector but must go through several more stages of planning detail before building can start. The land is owned by three Oxford colleges: St John’s, Worcester and Merton as well as by Oxford City Council itself. We hope to mount a court challenge: without it there is no hope of stopping the plans and the first buildings could be complete by 2015.
Traffic & Pollution
The area around Wolvercote roundabout, where the Northern Gateway is proposed, is already the worst traffic blackspot in the County according to Oxfordshire Highways Authority. The nearby stretch of the A34 is predicted by the Highways Authority to become one of the worst blackspots in the whole country. Rush-hour queues can stretch up to two miles back along the A40 and A44. Both the Highways Agency (national) and Oxfordshire Highways Authority (local) have strenuously opposed the Northern Gateway for just these reasons. The Highways Agency has said that it believes that the plans are ‘contrary to’ national planning rules on transport (PPG13).
Oxford City Council commissioned its own traffic study from an expert, Peter Headicar, which embarrassed them by roundly condemning their own plans. It projected that journey times in Central Oxfordshire will rise by 80-90% by 2026, even before the effect of the Northern Gateway is included. In Oxford itself, major roads are already gridlocked during term-time rush hour and we believe this means they will be continuously choked. Up to 80% of employees at the Northern Gateway are forecast to commute from outside the area by car, most from outside Oxford. Unsurprisingly, pollution is already above legal limits; for instance Nitrogen Dioxide levels are high enough to cause respiratory diseases and to begin to kill off some nitrogen-sensitive plants. Mr Headicar agreed that the ‘Northern Gateway’ ‘contravenes Government guidance’. It appears the City Council didn’t like his report and buried it; it was only a request under the Audit Act by Engage Oxford that dug it up. They have ignored or dismissed all the other similar expert evidence. The Planning Inspector has agreed to permit the start of building before any measures to try to slow traffic-growth are complete.
The Environment and Port Meadow
Port Meadow together with Wolvercote Common is part of ‘Oxford Meadows’ an SSSI and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is protected under EU and national law because of its importance as one of the few untouched areas of meadow pasture that has been grazed continuously and flooded but never ploughed since at least the Bronze Age. Surveys show that it contains over 178 different flowering plants. For instance it is the largest of only two sites in the country containing a critically endangered species: Creeping Marshwort, of which only 50-100 plants remain, carefully protected by local naturalists.
The ‘Northern Gateway’ will be a huge site, less than 100 yards from the edge of the SSSI and 200 yards from ‘Oxford Meadows, SAC’. It covers part of the Wolvercote and Godstow Conservation Area as well as Green Belt and stretches across the rising ground above the meadows. It is potentially a major threat and the City Council is required by both National and International law to ensure the meadows are protected. The City Council has admitted that, owing to an ‘unfortunate oversight’, ‘the Northern Gateway Policy CS6 as currently worded does not provide certainty that adverse impacts on the integrity of the Oxford Meadows SAC will be avoided’. It has also admitted that it, Natural England and other bodies have not yet had the opportunity to fully assess the environmental impact of the plans.
Such a large area of buildings and car parks is very likely to dramatically increase the flow of run-off water which flows through the gravel and clay ground to the meadow below. Both the resulting flooding and pollution may be a significant threat. Traffic pollution will also increase, particularly along the north edge of the meadows where Godstow Road will carry many more cars to the proposed site as well as the existing projected increase. Current pollution levels on the meadows are close to ‘critical load’. The environmental reports and appraisals on the Northern Gateway appear not to address these concerns properly and drafts contained a number of basic factual inaccuracies. Most describe themselves as ‘desk studies’ with little or no real fieldwork or testing.
Lack of Consultation
Local people were barely consulted about the plans and very few were aware of them. As a result there has been no opportunity to make constructive suggestions about changes or improvements; many believe this was what the Council and developers intended. The council claim to have leafletted the city with a half-page questionnaire and four workshops were arranged. The nearest was two miles away and most were in Blackbird Leys, over six miles away. Unsurprisingly, few local people knew about them and even the City Council admits that only 80 people in total attended; 0.05% of the city’s population. In contrast, over 500 people attended two meetings organised by Engage Oxford once the true nature of the ‘Northern Gateway’ was revealed.
Responses to the Council’s questionnaire favour a very different city to the one planned in the Core Strategy. The majority favoured the preservation of an ‘environmentally-aware’ and ‘historic’ city and were opposed to major growth and green-field development. Again the planners dismiss the results of this consultation, apparently since it did not agree with their vision and have pushed forward with their plans.
A Better Plan
Engage Oxford, working with other local and environmental groups, hopes either to stop or dramatically improve the proposals. Our supporters have already voted to start work on an improved ‘community plan’ for the area including the site of the ‘Northern Gateway’. We will be organising workshops which will be open to all local people. Please look out for notices about them and do come along with your ideas. Sign up and donate on our website to say informed and involved. Thank you for all the support, help and donations that so many of you have already given.