All that glitters is NOT gold

This Shakespearean phrase, originally all that glisters is not gold, simply means that not everything that looks precious or true turns out to be so. This can apply to people, places, or things that promise to be more than they really are.  Nothing could sum up better the promises made by the HCA in the proposed airfield development.

We have been promised many wonderful new facilities – a 50 meter swimming pool, theatre, cinema (all located within a new secondary school); a supermarket; shops; cafes; a new medical centre; a “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) system (running between Watlington and Oxford every 15 minutes); new roads; cycle routes; bypasses at Watlington, Stadhampton, Little Milton, and Benson; job opportunities; new recreation grounds; a new cemetery; and more!  But how much of this will actually happen?

The much publicised Bus Rapid Transit system has already been quietly shelved. Instead, an improvement to the current bus timetable has been promised, and potentially two new bus routes. As yet, we understand that no communication has taken place with the local bus companies, and there have been no feasibility studies to see if it is actually financially viable.

Looking at other facilities, the promise of a 50m swimming pool is an eye-catching one, but let’s look at the reality. There are currently only thirty two 50m swimming pools in the UK, and only one of these is based at a school.  Access to this one pool is extremely limited and is only available to the public in the evenings or during the school holidays and this will almost certainly be the same for Chalgrove New Town. Although the pool is being touted as a “community” facility, it is challenging to run a community facility within a school site, whether it be a pool or a theatre/cinema.  Safeguarding pupils comes first; allowing access to the public during school hours is not viable. Further, it seems unlikely that a pool of such scale will be built in an area with limited access due to inadequate transport links.
Cycle lanes connecting Chalgrove to the wider area are also impractical; the majority of our roads are simply too narrow to accommodate them without major investment. The Oxfordshire Cycle Network have just released their masterplan for Oxfordshire, and they estimate £120m to put cycle routes across Oxfordshire, with Chalgrove in the last phase. It’s not clear how much of that would be needed to widen the roads around the new development, but it will take a big chunk out of the HCA budget.

By far the largest investment needed would be to the road network, and this is where the sums really don’t add up. Bypasses are expensive; the current estimate for the necessary road improvements is now in excess of £100m to provide bypasses and uprate roads. The HCA tell us that they have £100m for the infrastructure works needed, but that is for ALL the infrastructure work – so if you spend that on the roads, where do all the other facilities come from? The implication is that public money would have to be used to make this site work and in times of austerity and extensive public service cuts this money could be better spent elsewhere.

We would urge communities who are being sold these promises to ask: What will we actually get? When will it happen? How much will it cost, and how is it being funded? What guarantees do we have? What happens if we don’t get what has been promised?  It is easy for planners and developers to promise the earth at the planning stage in order to get the communities onside. It is much harder to get them to deliver on those promises once planning permission has been granted, and budgets get squeezed.

In light of the above, it is easy to draw the conclusion that many of the promised facilities are also just that – promised. It is a good way to try and get the local residents onside, but no guarantees have been given and no money has been ring-fenced for any of the items promised. When you consider that the site will not make any money until the first houses are sold, you have to wonder where the funding will appear from. All of which brings us back to the phrase: “all that glitters is NOT gold”.  Sometimes you have to scratch the surface (and dig a little) to see what’s underneath!