Political Posturing on Potholes is Full of Holes

OK, I’ll agree, the state of our roads in Oxfordshire is shocking.

As I journey around the district on my bike and by car I can see the number of cracks, holes and ravines as much as any other other road user and the situation is unacceptable.

But our roads didn’t get into this state in just the last 2 years!

The Conservatives have been grandstanding in this election about potholes and blaming the Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition on the County Council for the situation. But it’s no worse now than it was under the last Conservative controlled administration. In fact it’s probably a bit better in terms of how responsive our road management team are.

I appreciate that seeing so many potholes is frustrating. I’m reporting them every day and they have become more numerous recently after the changeable weather. Crews are out every day fixing them but it’s a battle to try to get the worst ones prioritised and everyone understandably wants to see those in their area fixed first. But the problem with repairing them is not lack of willingness by the council, it’s lack of money/resources.

Not a new problem

During the last year of the Tory run administration on OCC a story was run in the Oxford Mail which reported that an insurance company had ranked Oxfordshire fifth worst for the number of potholes reported between 2015 and 2018. Figures showed 93,112 potholes were reported during that period amounting to 19.6 potholes per km of road.

Read the full story here

The figures, from The Insurance Emporium, showed other areas worse than Oxfordshire include East Riding of Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Edinburgh and in top spot Devon as the worst for potholes. From personal experience I’d add our sister county Buckinghamshire to that list having driven though there recently, their roads make ours look like billiard tables!

But the current state of the roads is something that has been building up for years due to lack of investment by successive governments. I’m not even going to blame the Conservatives for it (as they are trying to do to us now) except to say that, as a Conservative administration themselves, they could probably have leant on the government a bit more to stump up some extra cash for repairs instead of borrowing their way out of the problem and saddling us with yet more debt that taxpayers will carry for years. Even then they still didn’t sort the problem out, because quite frankly it’s not sortable without massive investment.

Oxfordshire’s highways need about £45m a year just to stop them getting any worse. The council get less than a third of that from government and another third from local taxation. Some of the remaining third is covered by borrowing that was taken out by the previous administration that will run out in 2025 (although we’ll be paying millions in interest for many years to come). No one really knows where the funding will come from to cover that when that happens. A good chunk of that funding also goes on bridge repairs, and as many of you will have noticed, our bridges are also falling apart as well and if we have a catastrophic bridge failure the result could be a lot more serious than a puncture!

Our existing roads, are essentially worn out due to lack of proper maintenance for decades. The main cause of this is lack of central government funding made worse by the austerity measures during the last 10 years. It would now cost billions across the county to bring them all up to a decent standard and that doesn’t include pathways.

In the meantime the government forces local authorities to build more roads through “growth schemes” tied to essential housing that they won’t provide enough funding to maintain in the future. So the deficit continues to widen.

Playing politics

Lets stop playing politics over potholes. Every party blames the other for the state of the roads , but ultimately it’s a matter of investment. We all hate potholes and we all know they shouldn’t be there, but it’s daft to suggest that not fixing them is a deliberate choice for any controlling administration. If we had the spare money, don’t you think we’d spend it just to get the problem off our desks? And before people jump on the usual “if you didn’t spend it on this or that, you could fix X number of potholes” remember that government is all about making those decisions. A few £100K here or there is never going to fix the problems we have with road maintenance now we need billions if we’re going to sort this mess out.

As an administration we are absolutely focussed on doing the best with what we have on pothole repairs. The response time on repairs is now much better, but I accept there’s still room for improvement, particularly in terms of the longevity of some of the repairs. But we are going to need serious cash if we’re going to meet residents’ expectations and any politician who tells you otherwise is just using this issue as a campaigning tool. The only ways to get those funds is an increase in council tax, a reduction in other vital services or a very significant injection of funding from the government – and I don’t mean the paltry £3m or so that they recently announced for Oxfordshire coincidentally just before the local elections!

So if you really want to see a longer term systemic improvement you need to lobby the government to properly support local authorities. While you’re at it, you could mention a similar situation with health and social care, especially as they’ve just cut promised funding for carers in half!


We Can’t Afford to Neglect Affordable Housing

In Kidlington affordable housing is not just difficult to find, it’s pretty much impossible. Recognised as one of the most expensive areas of the district to live in, Kidlington does have some affordable housing in areas but the problem is that most of it is owned and allocated by the City Council. Indeed large areas of the village have been given over to the city’s needs, not least Grovelands which was built almost entirely for the City Council’s use.

And soon we’ll have even more, with the local plan partial review, which was adopted in 2020 after 3 years of objection and protest from local residents and pressure groups, providing yet more housing for the City’s needs with the 50% so-called affordable element having been signed over to the City Council’s control in a closed meeting during the first lockdown in 2020.

We all know that the term ‘affordable housing’ is virtually meaningless in Oxfordshire, but even so, very little is built in Kidlington. Even when the district council’s policy to to ensure that 30% of all new housing on larger estates is ‘affordable’, we hardly see anything being built that fulfils that criteria.

The flats above the Co-op were essentially given over to the flying school for their exclusive use, even though 3 of the apartments were meant to be available for residents needing affordable accommodation. At least 15 of those flats should have been designated affordable, but the district council messed up the planning application and we ended up with just 3 units available, with the rest being let on the open market. The agreement with developer in that case was so badly negotiated that in 3 years only 1 of those flats has been let on an affordable basis. The terms demand that the council must nominate someone within a 28 day window once a year which is almost impossible to do.

Flats on the old Co-Op car park site now almost exclusively let to a local flying school at market rent

15 more flats are due to be built on the Kidlington Garage site at the top of the Bicester Road. When the planning application was agreed the developers were supposed to provide £609,000 in lieu of the 5 affordable apartments. But 6 months later they returned to the planning committee with a viability assessment that argued they couldn’t afford to make any contribution at all. Nothing! Zilch!

This is because the government mandates that developers should be guaranteed a profit of 20% on all developments (how nice it would be for other businesses to be guaranteed a profit by the government!). This leaves it open for developers to game the system and make claims that they can’t meet this profitability threshold and thereby reduce or, as in this case, completely remove their responsibility to provide any affordable units or money in lieu.

I and my fellow Green Councillor Fiona Mawson thought this was wrong and we tabled a motion to refuse the planning application if no affordable element was provided. Sadly, as we and our opposition group are outnumbered on the planning committee, the plans were approved by the Conservative majority.

Subsequently I brought a motion to the council to increase our affordable requirement on larger developments from 30% to 50% to bring us in line with the City policy. As we have agreed to that percentage on the developments being built in and around Kidlington for the City Council, I thought it only fair that we should give our own residents the same consideration. I was pleased to see that the motion was passed almost unanimously.

It’s still sobering to think though that out of around 90 apartments that have been built in Kidlington in the past 5 years, only 3 have been designated affordable and as I explained above, out of those 3, only one has actually been let to a family that needed it.

Cherwell is desperately in need of a change of direction in this issue. We need a council who is prepared to stand up to developers and push for better deals for all our residents. Moreover we need to ensure more affordable developments are brought on line that will benefit local families rather than forcing them to split up as grown children need to move away from their area simply because they can’t afford a home of their own. I believe a change of administration next month could see that better direction and I hope to be a part of that.


This could be the year that everything finally changes

In 2019 I became the first ever Green District Councillor in Cherwell. Apart from that being a little bit of personal history for me, it was also the start of a change that would unfold across the county over the next 3 years with Greens playing their part in the removal of Conservative control in every major local authority in Oxfordshire.

In 2019, Green colleagues in South Oxfordshire, along with the Lib Dems virtually swept the board, taking control of the District Council from a huge Conservative majority with 5 Greens being elected. Another Green was elected on the Vale of the White Horse Council. Then in 2021 Greens, Lib Dems and Labour took control of the County Council in a three way alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens forming a separate group which I now have the honour of being deputy leader of. Finally in 2022 we took joint control of West Oxfordshire District Council with the Lib Dems and Labour as well as gaining a further seat on CDC.

That left CDC as the only remaining Conservative controlled council albeit with a drastically reduced majority of only 2. The group that I and 2 Lib Dems formed in 2019 grew to 12 members by the end of the last municipal year meaning that from 2022 we became the official opposition with me as deputy leader of that group.

That’s a huge turnaround in only a few short years which feels even shorter given that for one of those years the elections were cancelled.

Now with Cherwell as the last remaining bastion of Conservatism in the county, the prize is for the taking. As long as all the currently sitting opposition councillors hang on to their seats (which includes me) in the forthcoming elections, we have a good chance of taking control of CDC. We really need 4 extra seats to be flipped from the Conservatives and the way the country feels about them at the moment that is a very real possibility.

Greens hope to take one more seat in Bicester where we’ve come a close second 2 years in a row, with the Lib Dems hopefully gaining 2 more. In Banbury there’s a chance that Labour will also gain an extra seat which would then give a 4 way Green/Lib Dem/Labour/Independent alliance a majority. Even if we only gain 2-3 seats the council will fall into no overall control which gives us much more leverage to ensure that areas like Kidlington get a better slice of the district pie.

For far too long Kidlington has been the poor relation in Cherwell with the majority of funding and investment going to Banbury – where the council has so far sunk £130M into a failing shopping centre – and Bicester – where they plan to spend £4.25M on upgrading a car park in an events space that no one really seems to want.

This year we have an opportunity to see real change and real progress in areas like Kidlington as well as the rest of the district. I hope voters will take that opportunity and we can finally have a clean sweep across the county leaving progressive, forward thinking authorities looking out for the best interests of current residents and those yet to come.

This year, more than ever in Cherwell, every vote will count. I won in 2019 with only 72 votes to spare, although last year Fiona Mawson won with a far more convincing majority of over 250. I hope I can emulate here but we can’t afford to be complacent. Everyone needs to use their vote to support the candidate most likely to win against the Toru candidate. In Kidlington East that’s me and I hope I can count on local support.

Let’s not lose this chance to break the Tory stranglehold and make a better future for everyone. Make sure your vote really counts on May 4th!