Bicester (pronounced “bister”) has been in the news this week. It is a town in Oxfordshire that is going to become rather bigger. Describing the plans for 13,000 new homes as amounting to it becoming a “garden city” may be an exaggeration. But that will certainly amount to an important contribution towards alleviating the housing shortage.
It shows that Eric Pickles’ locally-led approach is working (in contrast to Labour’s top-down eco-towns which built nothing but resentment). The Liberal Democrats have sought to take “ownership” of the policy – by falsely claiming that Conservatives have resisted such garden cities. That is absolute tosh. But our red line has been that they should have local support. What Bicester shows – with the efforts of the Conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry and of Cherwell District Council – is that it can be achieved.
Sir Tony told me:
“We were surprised by Nick Clegg announced this early. However, it is very welcome.
“Bicester is already a fast growing town. 13,000 new homes are already planned. We are now ensuring we will see some money spent to provide decent infrastructure.
Unemployment is below one per cent in Bicester. Engineering businesses are doubling in size. People want to live near where they work. So, of course, people want to move there.
“Housing is the biggest issue that is raised with me.”
What is being built reflects what people want – houses with gardens. Ensuring the design is attractive is most important. From the taxpayers point of view while the cost of infrastructure is considerable – £44 million for road improvements – so will be the proceeds from selling surplus Ministry of Defence land (Graven Hill) to allow space for the development.
When the Defence Storage facilities were built during the First World War they were deliberately built over a very large area of farmland to minimise the damage that could be caused by any Zeppelin attacks. Very sensible. But this mean still owns, a huge acreage of land on the outskirts of Bicester. It does seemly timely to consider whether this remains an imperative to our national security.
At Graven Hill a significant number of plots available for self-builders.
Sir Tony adds:
“I would certainly hope that Bicester sets a good precedent.”
The Ministry of Defence owns 600,000 acres – that is equivalent to the size of Surrey. In Graven Hill it owns 560 acres – not even all of that is being sold.
13,000 new homes is important in itself. Sir Tony is standing down from Parliament with a bang, not a whimper.
But far more could be done across the rest of the country – a hundred times or a thousand times more.
Bicester is showing us the way.