A NEW blow has been delivered to campaigners fighting gravel extraction plans they say will “devastate” West Oxfordshire countryside.

Big increases in gravel extraction are set to be concentrated on the Lower Windrush Valley and around Cassington, leading to further loss of countryside in an area already dominated by mineral working.

With Oxfordshire faced with having to significantly increase gravel and sand extraction to meet new Government targets, the county council has decided West Oxfordshire will have to bear the brunt.

The council’s cabinet rejected the option of spreading the misery across the county, delighting parishes in South Oxfordshire, which organised an effective campaign to stop new gravel sites near villages.

Instead, the cabinet has opted to concentrate the work in an area that already provides 90 per cent of the county’s gravel, sparking claims that West Oxfordshire will pay the heaviest environmental price, with the risk of worsening traffic, dust and noise problems.

The decision was taken despite a final plea to councillors from Julie Hankey, chairman of Outrage (Oxfordshire Upper Thames Residents Against Gravel Extraction), who warned West Oxfordshire residents had had enough.

Ms Hankey said: “The Lower Windrush Valley has supplied the county’s gravel since the Second World War, and has been the most heavily dug. With about 1,200 acres of the valley under water, the cumulative impact of the gravel extraction has reached a critical point.

“The area has been devastated. These areas have been dug too long. Residents have had enough. We hear about reedbeds and restoration. But we see the loss of existing biodiversity and landscape-scale destruction. And it will also bring increased traffic, dust, and noise.”

Campaigners were already reeling after a planning inspector found in favour of gravel company Hanson, who this month won its appeal against the county council’s refusal to grant planning permission to extract sand and gravel from Stonehenge Farm, between Northmoor and Standlake.

Ms Hankey said: “The outcome of the appeal will give yet more of what little is left of the Lower Windrush Valley to a gravel operator.”

Eynsham county councillor, Charles Mathew, said the council had acted prematurely in selecting areas for gravel extraction, while it was pressing the Government to reconsider an increase in Oxfordshire gravel target to £2.1m tonnes a year, a rise of more than 20 per cent.

Mr Mathew said: “This target is a ridiculous requirement.

“There is no reason why the county council should be rushing ahead with this.

“It is rather like ordering beer before you know how many people are coming to the party.”

He said it made financial and environmental sense to take gravel from areas where it was needed. But County Hall had gone for the “easiest option” to avoid upsetting protesters in other parts of the county, free of gravel extraction.

Calling for an end to nimbyism on the council, he said: “You cannot go on destroying West Oxfordshire in the way they have been in the past. I have talked to David Cameron about this. I cannot see why Oxfordshire should be spoilt to build office blocks in Reading.”

But Mr Mathew said he had been encouraged that a review of Oxfordshire’s own gravel needs was under way, which should report back in January.

County Hall rejected the option of taking gravel from such areas as Clanfield, Bampton, Sutton, Stanton Harcourt, Clifton Hampden, Wittenham, Benson Shillingford, Warborough and Cholsey. Instead the cabinet agreed to focus extraction work on the areas already being worked in the Lower Windrush Valley, Eynsham, Cassington, Yarnton, Radley, Sutton Courtenay, and Caversham.

Oxfordshire County Council said it would continue to press for a reduction in the county’s sand and gravel extraction target, and said there would be extensive consultation after a detailed assessment of the county’s gravel needs.

Earlier county council cabinet member for infrastructure, Ian Hudspeth, wrote to the Department of Communities and Local Government complaining that unfair extraction figures had been drawn up by the regional assembly, which is being abolished. He said Oxfordshire was having to bear an increase to allow reductions in extraction targets set for other counties, like Kent and Surrey.

An officer’s report to the cabinet said: “Gravel working has become more concentrated in the West Oxfordshire areas, as reserves have declined in areas south of Oxford.”