Sunday, September 02, 2007

Housing for Oxford: Mr Smith fails again

There is a scene of the ancien regime court depicted in the film Ridicule when the hero is thrown out of a dinner party on the basis that he is not witty enough to share at table with the other diners. ‘But’, he says as he retreats, ‘one can not judge a person by the company they keep. After all, Judas Iscariot had the best of companions.’

Andrew Smith is man with friends who, if not the best, are at least the highest-placed. He’s a man with the Prime Minister’s private number in his mobile; he’s someone who has sat at the table with the Cabinet. But Oxford gains precious little from his connexions.

It was Mr Smith who failed to persuade his former colleagues that our city should be considered for unitary status. And now the same Mr Smith claims the latest announcement on housing for Oxford is an unqualified success. If he genuinely believes that, he either deserves to be ridiculed or should admit he’s betrayed the people he’s supposed to represent. The latest news is nowhere near what our city needs.

The recommendations on the South East Plan now say that there should be 4,000 homes south of Grenoble Road. ‘Good news’ says Smith, rather than saying, ‘what, only 4,000?’ When you consider the planning process, it is likely that this will equate to, at best, 2,000 units of social housing in the area. Let’s be frank: that’s not going to solve Oxford’s housing crisis.

If there is to be any decisive act to improve the housing shortage in our city it is going to take much more than that sort of number. And we must remember that the social housing shortage is only one part of the problem: the lack of affordable housing affects a much wider section of our community.

So, for Andrew Smith to pop open the champagne at this announcement is not just misguided, it sells his city short. What makes it worse, is that he effectively endorses another bad decision about the South East Plan. The recommendations call for a review of the Green Belt just around Grenoble Road – what a missed opportunity.

Supporters of the Green Belt might imagine that this announcement is in their favour, but they would be wrong. If we are going to have a no-development zone which will last and, at the same time, help the county’s capital overcome its acute problems, we need to review the whole Green Belt, not just part of it. Overwhelmingly, that review would surely endorse the Belt that exists – and so make it a stronger defence against the onslaught which is bound to come in future years. At the same time, it is only through a complete review that we can take into account all the options for Oxford’s development. Beyond Blackbird Leys might be part of the solution, but it can not be – especially with Smith’s measly growth – the whole answer.

So, Mr Smith, if you want to stand up for your city, speak the truth: the compromise you’ve endorsed is no solution. Are you man enough to admit that?

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