The increase in housing in Bicester is a good thing.
From the broadest UK perspective, people need homes and the more homes that are built the better it is for our society.
Or it should be.
There are two specific dangers about the way the Bicester expansion is being implemented.
Firstly it must be obvious to any reasonable observer that the range of housing is out of balance.
There are plenty of “executive” style houses which is not a bad thing as the more affluent homeowners there are in the town the more the local economy is likely to expand.
But not everyone fits the profile for executive home purchases.
We need to think of young and aspiring first time buyers who are in lower paid jobs. They should be given a real chance to get on the housing ladder and start their journey of self-improvement whilst developing their other aspirations such as starting a family.
In addition to youngsters looking to start their housing journey there is a desperate need for properties which are designed and built to cater for older owner occupiers who want to “downsize” and in the process live in homes which are designed for increasing issues of physical mobility and care support as well as releasing properties which are too big for the elderly to maintain and update.
Then there is the compelling need for more social housing. The old concept of having decent quality rented properties that support labour mobility for key and specialist workers as well as the most needy has declined over the years as tenants were able to buy their council houses. There is nothing wrong with the right to buy concept but where that policy has failed in the past thirty years or so is by not replacing at least some decent level of social housing stock with homes for rent that are not excessive.
If successive Governments since the 1980’s had paid more attention to this as an issue the upward pressure of house prices would have been more tolerable and there would have been fewer social tensions as the population has increased and changed.
It’s no good blaming migrants for the housing shortage when governments and local authorities have not planned ahead for such changes instead of relying on so called market forces to deal with issues arising.
Those market forces have now led to a significant proportion of what was Local Authority housing being in the hands of property companies and other investors. This has led to the growth of private landlords in a way not seen since pre-war II. Those landlords are accountable to no one except their accountant. Local communities have no influence over priorities in their area.
Which leads to the second danger of Bicester’s stumbling and directionless development.
Where is the community focus?
Does Bicester want to go the way of some of “new” towns and become a soulless conurbation with little in the way of a community spirit or does it want to be a vibrant town with an active and thriving community heart?
Will future generations be proud to be Bicester folk or will they take the view that Bicester lacks soul?
Most people feel most comfortable when there is a collective team spirit; where like-minded folk work together for the common good; where they can join together to achieve aims which individually could not be achieved.
People like to be able to relate to success in their community; to be able to speak positively about the good things happening around them; to be able to support their local football, cricket, or hockey team for example.
Where are those things in the local strategic plan? What priority are people given versus housing development? Where is the balance?
For Bicester residents to feel that the new Garden Town has people and communities at the forefront of development planners and Councillors need to change direction and embrace the true principles of a Garden City.
(Note: despite the then Deputy PM Nick Clegg declaring grandly in 2014 Bicester as a future “Garden City” the local powers that be have deftly downgraded that lofty description to a “Garden Town”!)
We need to insist on public spaces for leisure and press for proper facilities for local clubs and societies. Do you know where Bicester Football Club has their ground? Where does Bicester Cricket Club play? Do Bicester Athletics Club have decent facilities? Is there a Hockey club? Are there sufficient leisure facilities for such a fast growing district? Are those facilities easily accessible by local residents?
Where are there community centres for clubs and associations to meet and develop their own community plans? Should a growing Bicester have a theatre facility?
How do our various housing enclaves join together? Where are the public transport links between parts of the town?
It should be no surprise that we ask ourselves where the community spirit has gone.
When did we last get together to consider each other in our neighbourhood? When did we last consider our own neighbourhood in the context of other parts of the town?
If Bicester wants to have a true community spirit the planning and development of the town needs to take that into account. Councillors and Planners have a civic and moral duty to do just that.