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Oxford councillors express doubts over plans to destroy tranquil meadow

Flora Botsford | 25.04.2007 20:34 | Ecology | Free Spaces | Oxford

Today's meeting of the Oxford Strategic Development Control Committee (SDCC) was inconclusive. Plans to destroy the tranquil wildlife haven, Warneford Meadow, have been delayed while councillors seek further clarification from the applicants. This could take months, and gives environmental campaigners a chance to focus their energies on the ongoing application for Town Green status for the Meadow.

This is good news, but as Floris van den Broeke of the campaign group, Friends of Warneford Meadow, warned us: "Don't crack open the champagne yet - save your money for the Town Green legal process".

The decision to defer permission to 'develop' the Meadow is really only a reprieve. Councillors of Oxford's Strategic Development Control Committee, which is chaired by a member of the Green Party, have asked for more details of the plans, which they considered at this stage to be 'lacking in cohesion' and 'indeterminate' . One councillor told me that their main worry was that not one of the three applications was in line with the Oxford Local Plan, which is intended to limit future development for the city within certain parametres; neither had the applicants provided the necessary highway reports, or even a realistic hydrology and environmental impact assessment.

Whatever happens in the end, this decision gives campaigners a few months in which to re-charge their batteries and focus their energies on the really big challenge ahead: the application to have Warneford Meadow designated a Town Green. This seems to be the preferred legal route for many such protests against the unstoppable machine of urban development, particularly in the desirable south-east of England.

If campaigners can prove that a designated 'community' of Oxford residents uses the Meadow, as a cycle-route from East Oxford to Headington, for example, or to walk the dog, have picnics, play football, or whatever, then they are in with a chance of convincing the lawyers. There is an impressive legal precedent in Oxford already: the Trap Grounds, a small strip of 'waste' land in North Oxford, which the developers who had their greedy eye on it said was unused by anybody. Local resident, Catherine Robinson, proved otherwise, and took the case all the way to the House of Lords, the highest court in the land.

Now, a similar course of action is being pursued by the campaign to save the Oxfordshire beauty-spot, Radley Lakes, near Abingdon, which is under threat of destruction by npower, as a repository for waste products from Didcot Power Station.

Each application, Warneford Meadow and Radley Lakes, is spear-headed by an individual, who must be from the community which is said to use the land. In the case of Warneford Meadow, Paul de Luce is the applicant, who lives near the Meadow and wants to protect it for future generations.

The race is on to raise money for legal bills, should they arise. Paul de Luce will be entitled to legal aid to begin with, but possibly not all the way. I well remember Catherine having book sales and all kinds of fund-raising events for the Trap Grounds, when we worked together at Oxfam. Friends of Warneford Meadow hope to raise £13,000 and are looking for donations. They also plan to start charging a small subscription for membership, and holding fund-raising events in the near future, such as an Auction of Promises and Quiz Night on 19th May at Southfield Golf Club on Hill Top Road (Tel 01865 728153 to make promises).

What is really criminal about the Buckinghamshire and Oxford Mental Healthcare Trust proposal is that they are forgetting the history of the Meadow. It was bought by public subscription for the enjoyment of the patients of Warneford Psychiatric Hospital. Today, I went to the Meadow to do some filming and an interview for BBC South Today. On the border between the hospital, where I was incarcerated in the summer of 2005, and the Meadow is a brand-new fence, and a big sign as you approach the hospital saying 'Private Property: Keep out'. This is new. It didn't used to be like that. Are they now saying that mental patients should not, as I did, walk in the Meadow, for a bit of peace and quiet? Surely this goes against the spirit of that public subscription, back in Victorian times, when people were not necessarily known for their sympathetic treatment of the mentally ill, but appear to have had more understanding of what it takes to help maintain mental health?

Flora Botsford
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  1. Accurate facts please. — Christopher