Twice as many homes, a high speed trainline through ancient woods, dead rivers. What is the real cost of pushing for growth, speed and convenience? Do you know what is really happening to our beloved countryside?
To say that Oxfordshire’s wildlife and green spaces are currently under the greatest threat in its history is by no means an understatement.
I was born in Oxford and having lived and worked in Oxfordshire all my life, I have a deep connection to this county. I love nature and I am concerned about the environmental issues we are facing globally. However I realise that I had a limited understanding of what is happening on my own doorstep. I therefore decided to take a closer look at what is going on here to protect nature and get a better understanding of the ecological challenges we are facing locally.
I already knew that our rivers are subjected to alarming levels of pollution. In West Oxfordshire where I live, the water of the Windrush River is rarely clear. Instead it is often murky with yellowish foam floating on the edges. Having run for the position of Town Councillor in 2019, I was aware of the issues posed by sewage being consistently released into our rivers. I was horrified when I found out that my daughter and her friends had been swimming in the Windrush. This is a real shame because I remember the joy of swimming in the Cherwell at the same age.
Rivers are to the earth what our veins are to our bodies. Imagine injecting toxic waste, chemical substances and raw sewage into our circulatory system. What would it do to our heart, to our kidneys and to our brain? How would this impact our ability to provide for those we care for?
Whether we like it or not, consider it or not, the earth provides for us. When so much of life is made up of water including around 60% of our own bodies and 71% of the Earth’s surface; it is baffling that so many people do not understand the paramount importance of clean rivers, not just to us but the wildlife.
All of our rivers flow into the sea and the plight of our oceans is well documented. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic are swept into the sea each year and over 500 marine species are known to suffer directly from the consumption of plastic and entanglement, which is fatal for them. Micro plastics found in our toiletries and other household products present another problem. Those tiny beads are known to be eaten by fish and other marine animals, which of course is harmful to them but it also means that a portion of those plastic particles ends up on our plates. Whatever we put out into the environment ultimately ends up inside our bodies; whether through the air we breathe, water we drink or food we eat. Dr Dietrich Klinghart from the Klinghart Institute argues that the rise in certain ailments such as skin disorders, autism, degenerative illnesses of the brain are connected to the toxins present in our bodies.
In the Panorama documentary, River Pollution Scandal, the big UK water companies were exposed for consistently breaking the laws designed to protect our rivers by illegally dumping raw sewage into our already strained waterways. This is happening not just in Oxfordshire, but all across the UK including in the protected nature reserves. It is important to know that by law, untreated sewage can only be released in specific circumstances. Research shown in the documentary demonstrates that raw sewage is discharged excessively and without respecting the legal requirements.
Unfortunately, the fines imposed on them - when they are caught in the act - are simply too small to make a dent large enough to truly hold those profit making companies to account.
Whilst writing this I spoke with a friend for an update on the HS2 who had been campaigning to stop the development. The HS2 is a new rail link between Manchester and the Channel Tunnel via London. This new high speed service will have a catastrophic impact on Oxfordshire’s wildlife.
In 2013 the Independent on Sunday reported that hundreds of wildlife sites could be effected: “Among the sites that could be directly damaged or indirectly affected are a national nature reserve, 10 county wildlife trust reserves, about 50 ancient woods, 30 river corridors, 24 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs, the highest level of protection) and hundreds of other wildlife habitats. Among the rare or scarce species at risk are the small blue butterfly, long-eared owl, stag beetle, great crested newt, purple hairstreak butterfly and Bechstein’s bat.”
The article also quotes Hilary Wharf, director of HS2 Action Alliance, saying: "The Government has done everything it can to pretend that HS2 will not have a huge negative environmental impact. But we will lose for ever ancient woodlands, wildlife and nature reserves, not to mention an area of outstanding natural beauty."
And as if this wasn’t enough my friend went on to mentioned The OXCAM Arc; a colossal property development project which poses an even greater risk to our environment.
The Oxford to Cambridge Arc is planning an additional 1 million homes in the next 30 years, with Oxfordshire’s housing stock set to more than double in the coming years. It is estimated that the UK will need 3 million additional homes built before 2050 and the current plan coming from Whitehall is to build one third of those houses in the OXCAM Arc, which sits across Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
Silo thinking led by Boris Johnson’s government and his ‘Build, Build, Build’ program means that no proposals or review have been put to the people. Let me say that again... no proposals were put to the people when they plan to double the houses in Oxfordshire; a rise of 108% which is completely disproportionate to the estimated 16% increase needed.
The vast majority of us have no idea what is going to happen to our county and, those who do, are horrified. There are of course people who have a vested interest in the mass urbanisation of our countryside; indeed there is a lot of profit to be made by a few large companies, landowners and universities as the county’s location is highly profitable.
Elsewhere in Oxfordshire the London Oxford Airport in Kidlington is pushing forward with its plans for an expansion of its runway, and in doing so will bring more air traffic to the county, which in turn will bring more pollution and greater disruption to the local wildlife.
A century or more of incessant focus on economic growth has put our local and national habitat in jeopardy. The UK government has seen the countryside as an asset to be exploited as have private sector companies looking for short term gains. Our native species are threatened and disappearing at an alarming rate.
Oxfordshire is a beautiful part of the world and it is worth protecting. Bees and butterflies, hedgehogs and certain birds like lapwings, yellow hammers and many others are in ever decreasing numbers. Nature is fundamental to our very survival. It is good for us in so many ways. Studies show that spending time in nature even for a short period of time is good for our mental health. Destroying nature takes us closer to our own extinction and yet as a society we are acting as if this painful truth is nothing but a myth or perhaps we feel that as individuals there is no impact we can make.
Oxfordshire faces reckless development projects which will change the face of the county forever turning it from the rural community with an exceptional centre of knowledge, science and innovation into a congested and over-developed region. Oxfordshire’s countryside and wildlife needs desperate support from locals to stand up and protect it. With diligent planning, care and consideration guided by expert ecologists and pressure from local residents, the impact may be reduced. According to Oxford Zoology Professor, David Rogers, it is not too late to stop the OXCAM Arc development all together. The No Expressway Group has shown such action to be achievable when they successfully stopped the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.
There are other more suitable sites across the UK to build the necessary housing. Squeezing one third of the UK’s new houses into just 5% of the land makes no sense at all. The UK government plans to build its way out of the impact of the pandemic, but what will be the impact upon the existing green spaces of our county, to our hospitals, our roads our schools? And what will be the longer term consequences of those projects for the environment?
The OXCAM Arc and HS2 plan to offset the green spaces developed, but research suggests that offsetting rarely works (you can read here a report by Friends of the Earth on the subject). An Australian study suggested it takes on average 146 years for a habitat to reach the level of those being destroyed and two thirds of the offset projects started all over the world have not met their desired goals, with many trees planted and left to perish because the costs to maintain them over a long period of time are too high. It is a fairytale to believe that mass growth can happen without catastrophic effects on the environment. Offsetting is being used as a mask by deceptive developers to help them lobby governments.
As a community we need to take a vitally important role in keeping the government of the day accountable for its promises to protect our rivers, our woodlands and our green spaces for future generations.
We also need to change our habits, choosing environmentally friendly products, organic foods and reducing our packaging and meat consumption. We can either keep our dogs from entering rivers or stop the regular flea treatments which contain harmful toxins. A recent Guardian article mentions a study, led by Rosemary Perkins at Sussex University, which suggests that of the UK’s 10 million dogs, 80% have a regular flea treatment whether they need it or not and this treatment contains enough harmful toxins to kill 60 million bees.
These choices require thought, effort and action and also often come at an increased cost for us. We have grown up in a society that places value on convenience and luxury. Yet that way of thinking is not sustainable and the time to act has already past us by. We need to step up now and protect what is left of our county and country’s natural resources and play our role in shaping the future.
I’m up for it, will you join me?
What can you do?
Start small... here are some practical ideas
Share this article on social media – just a couple of clicks really!
Take a bag and go litter picking
Go eco-friendly with your cleaning products
Reduce your meat consumption
Walk, cycle or take public transport when you can instead taking your car
Join your local Wildlife Trust
Spread the word on social media – talk about this issue, help raise awareness
You can write to your local politicians, showing your passion and letting them know clearly how you feel about issues like the high speed rail and the Oxford to Cambridge Arc Development and our polluted rivers and waterways.
You can engage with local politicians at town, district and county level, and ask them what they are doing to protect our wildlife and countryside.
Read up on those issues, become well informed and talk about what you learn.
Here is a list of the Oxfordshire MPs and their contact details:
Robert Courts, Conservative – Witney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Layla Moran, Lib Dem– Oxford West and Abingdon (email@example.com)
Anneliese Doods, Labour – Oxford East firstname.lastname@example.org
John Howell, Conservative – Henley email@example.com
Victoria Prentis, Conservative – Banbury firstname.lastname@example.org
Davis Johnston, Conservative – Wantage email@example.com
Links for more information:
Article and photography by Ben Molyneux