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Choice of Bicester as garden city not surprising but delivery presents challenges, says expert

A planning law expert has said that a government announcement that Bicester has been chosen as the potential site of a new garden city is not surprising, but warned that bringing forward 13,000 new homes in the Oxfordshire town might pose significant challenges.

The Treasury announced its support for Bicester's plans to become a "garden town" in a statement accompanying the publication of its National Infrastructure Plan 2014 today. The statement said that the construction of 13,000 new homes had been proposed for the town, which would be the second garden city supported by the coalition government following its backing for 15,000 homes at Ebbsfleet in Kent.

Following the announcement, Rebecca Warren, planning and environment expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the choice of the town for extensive housing development was not surprising.

“Bicester has long been a focus for government as an eco town and now a garden city," said Warren.  "So it is unsurprising that this location has been identified through the garden cities selection process. The attractiveness of the financial incentives and support packages offered to garden cities will have been a lure to Cherwell District Council to put forward the proposition, as was the case when one of the sites was identified as an eco town a few years ago." 

"Another imperative will no doubt have been that, as of August 2014, the Council is now owner of the Graven Hill Ministry of Defence (MoD) site so will be keen to see returns on its investment quickly," added Warren.

However, Warren warned: "13,000 homes is a significant ask for Bicester, especially given the recent call for sites that informed the Local Plan submission. Graven Hill MoD site secured resolution to grant for 1,900 homes in 2013 but permission has yet to be granted." Warren noted that progress at an eco town planned for North West Bicester had been "very slow" with construction having "only recently started following grant of permission in 2012 for an initial phase of 393 homes".

Warren suggested that a coordinated and proactive approach would be required to successfully bring forward the plans. "Crucial to the delivery of the garden city will be the delivery and coordination of the many parties involved across a myriad of sites," Warren said. "Proactivity by the local authorities will be crucial and the local authorities involved have previously struggled to deal with large development projects.  Cherwell have recently advertised for a delivery manager for Bicester for what was described as 'the planned 10,000 new homes', so hopefully this will assist in tangible delivery."

Turning to the infrastructure requirements of a garden city project, Warren said: “Pulling together all the threads across a number of sites will be complicated to ensure that necessary infrastructure is provided in a timely way but with each development site contributing fairly in accordance with statutory requirements.  Section 106 pooling constraints will not be helpful to the councils and Community Infrastructure Levy is some way off being introduced.  Perhaps we will see a further relaxation of the rules on pooling which will no doubt be welcomed by the councils."

“Bicester is well connected by rail with two train stations and additional investment being planned," said Warren.  "It enjoys good road connections, although the impact of 13,000 homes will inevitably require significant investment in local infrastructure. It has an enviable reputation internationally for high end retail stores which draw many visits from national and international visitors.  However, reported investment in the traditional heart of Bicester will no doubt be welcome to provide for the local residents’ needs.”

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