CHANGES must be made to the way Oxfordshire’s future is being planned or it will become ‘a county of suburban sprawl,' a group has warned.

POETS (Planning Oxfordshire’s Environment and Transport Sustainably) has been set up to counter current plans for growth around the county.

Members include several former Oxfordshire council officers and environment experts.

The group said a planned Oxford-Cambridge expressway must be scrapped, while the East West Rail line should be electrified.

The controversial Oxfordshire Growth Board – which councillors said on Tuesday will be reviewed – should be more democratically accountable, it said.

The group also said councils’ outstanding Local Plans should be ‘paused’ for a ‘proper consideration of real housing need’.

The group states: “Oxfordshire will become a county of suburb sprawl unless planning and transport policy changes. It faces an existential threat which in some ways mirrors that facing our planet.

“Almost certainly one of the reasons for this is that there is currently a democratic deficit in planning.

"The so-called Growth Board is not directly elected and appears to pay more attention to quangos such as the Local Enterprise Partnership and the National Infrastructure Commission than to local electors.”

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While it said the £215m Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal should be ‘reconsidered, and if appropriate, renegotiated’ with Government.

On Tuesday, the Growth Board held its first meeting following May’s local elections.

The meeting in Didcot was chaired for the first time by Liberal Democrat Sue Cooper, the new leader of South Oxfordshire District Council.

She was joined by Emily Smith, the new Lib Dem leader of Vale of White Horse District Council.

Their elections mean the board is now made up of three Conservative leaders, two Lib Dem leaders and one Labour leader.

The findings of a review into the Growth Board will be brought back to the board in September. It could result in a name change and a change of its responsibilities.

POETS said the board has previously been ‘focussed almost exclusively on maximising housing and employment growth.’ That might change following the review.

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The group also urges for future planning to ‘place climate change at its heart, embrace a genuinely consultative conversation with the public, environmental and business groups about what is acceptable/sustainable, with a particular focus on engaging young people'.

It also urges active traffic management to be used along the A34 and for work to be completed on the East West Rail project.

Rail lines should be electrified between Didcot and Oxford, it adds. It also lends support to councils and rail companies urging for the reopening of the Cowley Branch Line.

A 'behavioural change unit’ should be set up to ‘provide focussed information to residents and employers about alternative options for travel and reduce the use of cars on our roads’.

Members include Chris Cousins, the former head of sustainable development at the county council; Roger Williams, that council's former head of transport; David Young, the former director of environmental services at the county council.

Noel Newson is also a member. He was the former chief assistant engineer at Oxford City Council and group manager for sustainable transport at the county council.

Highways England plans to launch a public consultation into the possible Oxford-Cambridge expressway this autumn.

Regarding the potential changes to the Oxfordshire Growth Board, Emily Smith said: “Residents and community groups are incredibly frustrated about the Growth Board.

“People feel they have no say over the direction of growth in our county and don't always know what the growth board does and what local councils are accountable for."

The new leader of Vale of White Horse District Council added: “This review is much needed and I plan to take an active role in it. I will also be pushing for a name change that reflects the need for Oxfordshire's councils to focus more on creating healthy communities and sustainability.”

She said: “There is much merit in the district, county and city councils working together on common challenges and infrastructure planning, but the way the Growth Board operates needs to change.”