Those of you who have moved house both within and into Oxfordshire may well have noticed how Savills like to position themselves as facilitators of a high standard of rural lifestyle. Thus, it’s important to note just how enthusiastic they are in brokering a deal to build a 700 property housing estate which will ruin the very kind of parish and rural lifestyle that Savills are so keen to promote. We felt we needed to join this out to them:
Dear Mr Rees,
Greetings on behalf of the parishioners of Fyfield and Tubney and sincere congratulations to Savills Rural, Energy and Projects Division, and particularly to its Executive Director, Mr Gready, for the thoughtful and persuasive website contribution on rural planning and the impact of the government’s most recent White Paper on the issue – see http://www.savills.co.uk/blog/article/214739/rural-property/what-the-white-paper-means-for-rural-communities.aspx . Please pass on our thanks to Mr Gready and his team – we are indebted to them, as Savills’ insight will be of untold value to our cause and is certain to receive much attention during the ‘publicity period’ for Oxfordshire’s Local Plan 2031 Part 2 commencing today.
Moving from the stated principle above to the practice in our case, viz. the proposed sale by St John’s College of 85 acres of countryside within our parish for development, we of course sympathise with Savills given the invidious position in which you have been placed by your acquisitive client. As you would expect, public scrutiny of the motives and methods of the Governing Body of St John’s is very much ongoing elsewhere, but in our extensive campaign literature, social media output and dealings with the national and local press we remain committed to a scrupulously accurate and rigorously objective representation of Savills’ position in relation to your client’s instructions for land in the parish, recognising and applauding as we do the principles which you champion with regard to rural development, and the second pillar of your Vision and Strategy – ‘we always act with integrity’.
Therefore, to avoid any accusations of misrepresentation, still less the traducing of Savills, we would be most grateful if you could offer the parishioners of Fyfield and Tubney and our many campaign supporters both clarification and peace of mind in responding to some of the apparent discrepancies between your company’s stated principles in rural development (quoted in italics) and the current reality of the proposed development of our parish:
- ‘The recently published Government White Paper and Rural Planning Review offer positive news for rural areas, but any success will depend upon specific reforms being framed to facilitate clear co-operation between local authorities, landowners and local communities.’ [We heartily endorse the sentiment but do wonder why the landowner in this instance, St John’s, has twice refused to meet or enter into any meaningful conversation with the local community – obviously disappointing and concerning, you will agree, given the college’s charitable objective of operating ‘for the benefit of the general public’ and the President’s stated commitment to ‘the democratic process’. Serious questions are now being raised amongst local residents, college members and the wider community as to the suitability of the current Governing Body for stewardship of original endowments such as Fyfield entrusted to them – a heritage and responsibility which they appear to treat with contempt.]
- ‘The White Paper provides renewed emphasis on brownfield sites . . .’ [Yet St John’s propose to destroy 85 acres of farmland, hedgerow, copse and natural habitat – not easily reconcilable aims, it would appear. No doubt your reservations have been expressed to the client in the most strident terms, and a reminder given of the college’s published policy to take ‘every opportunity to reduce its environmental impact’. Rest assured that we are also applying similar pressure on the college to abandon its defilement of the countryside via CPRE and the numerous University-based agencies committed to preserving the natural environment, such as the Environmental Change Institute, Environmental Sustainability, the School of Geography & the Environment and of course, our very own Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.]
- ‘We would expect it [the White paper] to confirm the intention to permit small levels of growth in rural communities, including where no settlement boundary is in place.’ [185 properties built in the parish since the Domesday Book, then 600 (apologies, 700 – can’t keep up) come along all at once, with bypass, shops and filling station accompaniment. That would leave our ancient rural parish just behind Barton Park but still ahead of Oxford North in Savills’ own ‘key developments’ super-league. Flattering though such attention may be for the city, a 478% increase defies all conventional definitions of ‘small levels of growth’ here in rural Oxfordshire. We realise that for a charity numbering its assets in excess of half a billion pounds, all things are relative, but putting aside St John’s for one moment, such a scale of development and its accompanying collateral damage must surely challenge Savills’ expectations for future rural development, being such a long-established company known ‘to adhere to the highest standards of professional ethics’?]
- ‘We would also welcome a more place-sensitive approach – any infill within a village must not be at the cost of losing valued historic green spaces, which help to define the character and add to the charm and desirability of rural communities. Account should be taken of the historic morphology of villages and towns.’ [The entire parish is behind you in this respect, sir– indeed, the case could not have been better put by ourselves. Duly accredited, you can be confident that a place of prominence will be found in our future communications for your declaration: sentiments so respectful of both rural environment and heritage deserve a far wider audience. Given such clear and powerful convictions, however, we would expect nothing less of you than the redoubling of your efforts to inculcate a similar respect for our environmental heritage amongst the Governing Body/Charity Trustees of your client. You have our unwavering and vociferous support in your endeavours.]
- ‘In principal [sic], the renewed emphasis on well-designed schemes is to be welcomed and should help smooth the passage of a proposal through the planning process as communities should be more accepting of attractive and appropriate developments.’ [Your intent may be a little more covert here (a nod to the apophasis of the classical rhetoricians, perhaps?), but we can concur in recognising that as the current development proposal for Fyfield and Tubney is not ‘well-designed’, ‘attractive’ or ‘appropriate’, then the unanimous lack of acceptance by our community is entirely to be expected. Obscure but nonetheless telling further reasoning with which to confront your client.]
- ‘[However], . . . in order for this emphasis not to contradict the drive to make housing more affordable and deliverable, control of the review process will need to be in the right hands.’ [From the above declarations it is evident that the principles held in common between Savills and the inhabitants of Fyfield and Tubney leave us in the safest of hands, fellow travellers in our respect for the heritage of the rural environment. It is clearly understood that a company so committed to ‘behave responsibly’ and ‘act with honesty and respect for other people’ – indeed so reliant upon the goodwill and custom of the rural communities of Oxfordshire – could not afford to let its reputation be tarnished by association with a planning proposal overwhelmingly rejected by such communities. However, caution is to be urged. The campaign to persuade St John’s College that corporate cupidity is no excuse for the wanton destruction of the rural environment must go on, and with your helpful restatement of principle, it will gain new momentum. We feel sure that the influence you hold over your client will prove telling in persuading them that the moderation of their rents and release of lands held within Oxford would prove far more efficacious in satisfying their desire single-handedly to remedy the city’s housing issues than tarmacking natural wildlife habitat eight miles beyond it.]
As for the ‘hands’ of Mr Barber and his cabinet colleagues at Vale of White Horse District Council, no doubt the current reappraisal of the SHMA for the county has left them somewhat adrift in planning terms, and mitts less at liberty. Given that the original ‘independent’ SHMA appraisal was undertaken by G L Hearn, now part of the Capita property empire and a driving force behind the Orchard Centre and Didcot Gateway developments amongst others (as you will be aware), we cannot with hindsight be entirely surprised by the alleged original over-estimations of housing need. At present we still await a response to our repeated requests from Mr Barber about the intent of his minuted December 2014 statement to Kingston Bagpuize with Southmoor Parish Council, sweetening the pill whilst imposing yet another 280 houses on that luckless community, namely:
‘Now that Part 1 has been submitted, the Planning Committee is likely to reject further major development in the village. Any appeal against refusal will consider the position at the time of the appeal – by which time the Plan may be adopted. A Part 2 will follow identifying smaller sites across the District potentially including our Parish.’
It is conceivable that such has been the Council’s expenditure of energy and sheer pace of development in Kingston Bagpuize in doubling its size over the past five years, (a process of rural vandalism in which, sadly, your client must not remain blameless), that Mr Barber has lost track of his former pledges. Certainly his Planning Department seem to have become confused even as to which parish they are now considering for development proposals. Or perhaps Mr Barber’s head has been turned by the attentions of failed Conservative parliamentary candidate and fellow Oxfordshire councillor, Mr David McFarlane MBE, Director of SP Broadway – the company that ‘understands what makes communities tick’ – in his lobbying on behalf of your client’s developer, Lioncourt? Whatever may be the case, we await a definitive response from Mr Barber to our expressions of concern and we feel sure that he will be able to clarify matters to the satisfaction of all, including the Secretary of State’s Inspector and a council cabinet divided over future planning recommendations, whilst the media spotlight falls upon him during the ‘publicity period’. Having read Mr Barber’s introductory remarks to the Local Plan 2031 Part 2, in which he declared, ‘This plan will ensure we look after what is best about the Vale; that we help the district grow and develop in a way that protects its historic and rural features’, we remain confident that it cannot be long until the Vale of White Horse, (the clue is in the name, after all), joins our growing band of supporters in protecting our ‘historic green spaces’, as you have it, for future generations. Together, we can save our rural environment but the threat of permanent damage requires permanent vigilance, and lasting damage must have lasting consequences for all concerned.
With apologies for the prolix but nonetheless vital nature of our inquiry, we look forward to your clarification of the above queries. Parishioners, press and the wider environmental lobby await a reaffirmation of your stated principles and consequent action in the matter of Fyfield and Tubney with enthusiasm. Time is short; the need pressing. Once destroyed, this countryside of ours is gone forever and surely none of us could look our children in the face knowing that we had not done our utmost to preserve this gift and its wildlife for the future? Naturally, we appreciate all efforts that you are able to make in promoting our common cause and I attach an electronic copy of our most recent campaign leaflet for you to display and disseminate as you see fit. The results of our parish-wide petition will be broadcast very shortly and you will find further information on our website and Twitter account