NWAG's Chairman speaks out against the North Witney development

Posted on 23rd May, 2020

NWAG's Chairman, Stuart Harrison, argues the powerful case for preserving the landscape of North Witney. The feature appeared in the Witney Gazette, The Oxford Times and Oxford Mail. A full transcript of the article appears below the photograph.



The article in the Oxford Times on 7th May, 2020 (© The Oxford Times/Newsquest)


Classic FM listeners have, for the second consecutive year, voted Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, Britain’s favourite piece of classical music. But, in reality, this wondrous piece of human endeavour is incomparable to the hundreds of syllables that burst forth in one song as an exaltation of sky larks sore above ancient farm land between Witney and Hailey. Like the sky lark this land too undulates, rising eventually to the 105 metre contour beneath Poffley End, one of three settlements that make up the village of Hailey. For this beautiful landscape, from the edge of urban Witney in the south, to Downhill Farm in the north and Merryfield Farm to the east, is both designated part of the Wychwood Project and all in the parish of Hailey. For the rambler to pause by the copse below Downhill Farm offers you perhaps the best view you will ever find of the spire of St Mary’s Church Witney.


These richly fertile fields produce nearly half a million loaves of bread each year. Through the heart of this acreage a dual hedge row, aged through its wide variety of flora and fauna, defines a water meadow valley, while three small streams meander to converge at the foot of the land. But there, sadly, we must leave this idyllic scene. For those streams also bring hazard and danger, contributing to the threat of flooding of existing homes within Witney; homes which border the southern boundary of the fields that are coldly and unemotionally referred to in West Oxfordshire District Council’s Local Plan as the North Witney Strategic Development Area. All surface water from these fields feed in to a small drainage pipe of less than a metre, euphemistically known as ‘the Hailey Drain.’ Much of the flooding in Witney eminates from the 63,000 cubic metres of water that flow annually off these fields through the Hailey Drain and to the River Windrush. As yet no plan has been put forward to mitigate against the existing and historic flooding of homes and businesses in Witney, and especially Eastfield Road, Hailey Road, West End, Bridge Street and Woodford Mill, that occur regularly and, in 2007, spectacularly and tragically.


Everyone remembers those pictures of David Cameron wading through the knee deep waters of Bridge Street; flooding that caused devastation and cut the town in two. Yet WODC wants to add to this threat by concreting over these 148 acres with 1400 homes and scar the landscape with a ‘north perimeter road’. To achieve that they also want to first build (at the last design) an eleven dual pillared bridge know as the West End Link across the two arms of the River Windrush and, of course, the flood plain. Piling in to the flood plain just yards from homes in Woodford Mill, Mill Street and Bridge Street. A span of 190m of the Windrush Valley flood plain.


Once this road bridge arrives at the frequently flooded Cannon Pool, the name of the the three-way junction of Hailey Road, West End and Crawley Road, this so called ‘perimeter road’ then creates air quality management issues in the narrow and conservation area of West End. The street made famous in that First World War poem “ There’s an old fashioned house in an old fashioned street” will see a three to four-fold increase in volume of traffic. The heavily populated Hailey Road, home to the 200 pupil Witney Community Primary School, becomes the third busiest road in Witney. Indeed, the calculation is of at least 3000 additional vehicles to these narrow streets. This is not a perimeter road but an overload to an existing inadequate road system.


Everyone but the entrenched WODC ruling Conservative Party is opposed to this flawed development. All Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green party councillors on both WODC and Witney Town Council oppose it. Hailey Parish Council oppose it. The North Witney Ward of WODC has two representatives, both were Conservative members.


Richard Langridge, who had represented the Ward for 12 years and was a member of the Cabinet, would not vote for the inclusion of the development in the Local Plan. Hours before the vote he was invited by James Mills, leader of WODC to reconsider his position. He continued to take a stand in support of his local electorate and was removed, first from the Cabinet and then eventually from the Conservative ticket. In May 2019 he stood as an Independent and soundly retained his seat with the support of an appreciative electorate.


The second member for the North Witney Ward is the Council’s deputy leader Toby Morris. On each occasion the inclusion of the North Witney development has been discussed, including the final debate when the Local Plan was approved, he has held the mantra “You will never hear me say a good word in favour of this development.....” then voted for its inclusion.


When, at the beginning of this journey nearly a decade ago, I addressed the full WODC meeting on behalf of our emerging community action group, I appealed to the councillors’ sense of civic duty. I said that if the great blanket maker benefactors that had built the foundations of this wonderful town were here today they would say, as many of us do, that as councillors, WODC have been good stewards of the town. What has been achieved in Witney since the closure in the 1970’s of much of our historic manufacturing, especially engineering and blanket making, has been excellent. Indeed, the town has fulfilled its motto of flourishing, Ingenio Floremus “With Ingenuity We Flourish”. However, I concluded by saying that to allocate this land for development would change the face of Witney, Hailey, New Yatt and North Leigh “detrimentally and beyond measure”.


I had to make such an impassioned plea on behalf of the local community aware that behind me sat ranks of sharp suited consultants representing and guarding the profits of big builders, each flicking through a slick document of photographs and profiles of the councillors I was appealing to. Their intimidating presence only served to strengthen my resolve.


Life in our communities is changing rapidly. There is more windfall housing being built in West Oxfordshire than first forecast in the Local Plan housing numbers. Brexit is next year. Economic slowdown from these unparalled times we are now living in and the predicted downward cost of buying a house, will affect both housing numbers and the timetable, especially in developments such as the complex and costly North Witney where infrastructure could spiral over £40m. Infrastructure costs which we believe already make this development unsustainable. Another real fear is that WODC capitulate to allow houses to be built and profit taken before that infrastructure is in place.


The WODC Local Plan has to be reviewed by September 2023. If the 4,400 homes set out in the 2011-31 plan for Witney have to be achieved, then there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to concreting over the fields between Witney and Hailey, bringing dire flooding prospects and alarming traffic and air quality management issues to the town. The alternative is adjacent to the A40, now undisputedly the Witney by pass, with easy access to a recently improved super junction. It is on land all owned by one willing family and has one reputable and established developer. This alternative could also provide a significant and much needed contribution to the funding of a comprehensive solution to the A40. Ends