Oxford to Cambridge Expressway
The Oxford to Cambridge Expressway: a threat to wildlife.
Stunning wildflower meadows, ancient woodlands, hedgerows alive with birds and butterflies, and gentle undulating ridge and furrow fields which have survived from the Middle Ages – these are all under threat from the proposed Oxford to Cambridge Expressway.
This dual carriageway road and up to one million new homes could threaten scores of wildlife sites between the two cities. The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust is engaged in a legal battle with the government. We are arguing that it failed to assess the environmental impact of its plans before choosing the corridor of land where the development will be sited. We are currently running an online fundraising appeal to raise £40,000 towards our legal costs.
Highways England failed to commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or a Habitats Regulation Assessment (HRA) as part of the process of selecting their preferred corridor of land. These are required under European Law for schemes that impact on the environment such as this. This means the true environmental impact has not been properly considered.
The corridor of land that the government has chosen is very broad and the precise location of the Expressway and housing is yet to be decided. However, we do know that this corridor includes many protected areas for wildlife. There are three Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which are strictly protected sites under the EC Habitats Directive, and roughly 50 Sites of Special Scientific Interest. There are also roughly 280 Local Wildlife Sites, which are some of our most valuable wildlife areas, and which are identified and selected locally using scientifically-determined criteria and surveys. To avoid all of these sites the Expressway would have to be so convoluted it would fail to live up to its name.
We do not know whether the Expressway will take a clockwise or anti-clockwise route around Oxford before heading north east to Cambridge. However, if the A34 is widened west of Oxford the increase in traffic and pollution could affect sensitive areas such as Oxford Meadows, Cothill Fen and Wytham Woods. An alternative route around the south and east of Oxford would potentially impact on important areas for nature conservation including Bagley Wood, Sandford Brake, Brasenose Wood and Shotover Hill. Thankfully the Otmoor Basin, to the north east of Oxford, is safe.
The area east of Oxford is characterised by a mosaic of ancient woodlands, species-rich grassland, open water, scrub and hedgerows, which form part of the former Royal Hunting Forest of Bernwood. It is one of the most undisturbed and wildlife-rich areas of Buckinghamshire. The Upper Ray Valley would be at risk, along with ancient woodlands in the vicinity of Calvert, including Finemere Wood nature reserve.
Why does it matter?
The complex of designated sites and nature reserves in the areas of Cothill Fen, Oxford Meadows, the Otmoor Basin, the Upper Ray Valley and Bernwood Forest contain rare habitats and wildlife, including:
Ancient floodplain flower-rich meadows of a type so rare that only 1500 hectares remain in England
- Ancient woodlands, including those in the Bernwood Forest that support the Bechstein’s bat, one of Britain’s rarest mammals
- Rare fens, of a habitat type so rare that only 19 hectares remain in England
- Floodplain grazing marsh supporting some of the best remaining populations in lowland England of rare and declining waders such as curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe
- Ancient hedgerow networks that are the UK stronghold for the rare black and brown hairstreak butterflies.
You can read our FAQs here.
For more information about the potential impact of the Expressway on wildlife, you can download the Wildlife Trust's consultation response, and the Executive Summary of the response from the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, by clicking the links below.
Wildlife in this country is in serious trouble. Many species are in steep decline. The government has committed to leave the environment in a better state than they found it, but it is unclear how the Expressway and its potential impact on protected habitats is compatible with this ambition.
On Budget Day, at the end of October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave his support for the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation to build up to one million new homes in the vicinity of the Expressway. To get a sense of the scale of this proposal, we know that the current population of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes (areas where BBOWT operates) is very roughly 1.5 million people, and the average number of people per home is 2.45. That means there are currently more than 600,000 homes.
Even if only half the new homes are built across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes (and the other half in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire) it will still represent a near doubling of homes.
This is a campaign for environmental justice – for the sake of wildlife and people. We welcome support from the public to fight this legal battle so wildlife habitats are not destroyed.
What are BBOWT doing?
- In April 2018 The Wildlife Trusts made a submission to a Highways England closed consultation about the Expressway. You can read that response here. We warned that Corridor B would have the worst impact on wildlife of the three corridors that were then being considered.
- On 12 April 2018 we wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, about the lack of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) when selecting the corridor for the Expressway (read our letter).
- We responded to the government's announcement on 12 September that it had chosen Corridors B1 and B3 - and rejected Corridors A, B2 and C.
- We launched our legal challenge to the government and Highways England on 27 September with a 'pre-action protocol letter'
- In November we launched our online fundraiser to cover legal fees.
Frequently asked questions
What is this all about?
On 12 September 2018, the Department for Transport announced its chosen geographical location for an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway – a major road linking the two cities – and associated housing development that will be built near to the Expressway. The government refers to this as the ‘Oxford to Cambridge Growth Arc’.
The Department for Transport had three broad ‘Corridors’ between Oxford and Milton Keynes to choose from, and it chose Corridor B.
In April 2018, BBOWT submitted a document to a Highways Agency consultation about this project, and we clearly said that all three Corridor options would have a serious impact on wildlife, but that Corridor B was the worst of the three options. We told them then that Corridor B should be discounted due to the exceptional impact it could have on wildlife.
We also pressed the Government to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment (to assess the environmental and sustainability impacts), which we believe should be done for a project of this nature and scale, and which may be required in order to comply with EU legislation, but they failed to do this.
What was BBOWT's response to the government's announcement of the chosen corridor?
You can read what we said on 12 September when the Department for Transport announced that it had chosen Corridor B here.
Responding to the announcement, our CEO, Estelle Bailey, said, ‘In our opinion Corridor B is the worst of the three options. We told Highways England that the potential impact on biodiversity of Corridor B is so serious that the route should have been discounted entirely. The only way to avoid exceptionally serious impacts on biodiversity would be to develop a road route that is so convoluted that it would fail to qualify as an expressway. Our most serious concerns are for the designated sites and nature reserves in Cothill Fen, Oxford Meadows, the Otmoor Basin, Upper Ray Valley and Bernwood Forest.’
Why is BBOWT so worried about the impact of the Expressway/Growth Arc?
The scale of the project
We are concerned not just about the Expressway but about the extraordinary scale of the government’s proposed house building, which this road is proposed to enable. A 2017 report by the National Infrastructure Commission stated that house building needs to double in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge ‘arc’ in order to deliver up to one million new homes by 2050.
The choice of Corridor B
As outlined in our consultation response from March 2018, Corridor B has shown to be the one that has the greatest adverse effects on designated sites and priority habitats. Despite this Corridor B has been chosen as the preferred corridor.
It is important to note that Highways England divided Corridor B into three sub-corridors called B1, B2 and B3. When they made the announcement that Corridor B was the preferred corridor, they discounted sub-corridor option B2.
We have yet to analyse in detail what the omission of sub-corridor B2 means with regard to direct impacts on designated sites but an initial review suggests that Corridor B remains the worst corridor option compared to Corridors A and C.
In this context it is also important to note that we are not only concerned about the direct effects the Expressway and associated development will have on designated sites and wildlife but also about potential indirect impacts (eg. hydrological changes, air pollution, recreational pressure), which we believe will reach beyond the chosen corridor.
As outlined in our consultation response earlier this year, our most serious concerns are for the designated sites and nature reserves at Little Wittenham, in Cothill Fen (including Dry Sanford Pit and Lashford Lane), Oxford Meadows (including Oxey and Pixey Meads), the Otmoor Basin, Upper Ray Valley (including Gallows Bridge Farm and Meadow Farm), the Bernwood Forest (including Finemere Wood and Rushbeds Wood) and Calvert Jubilee.
The ‘Common corridor’ South of Oxford is up to 20km wide and has the potential to significantly impact on designated sites near Blewbury and Little Wittenham/Dorchester, the latter of which also includes a nature reserve.
Currently it is not clear whether the Expressway will circumvent Oxford to the West or the South. If it goes around the West the increase in traffic and pollution, and potential changes in hydrology, could affect sensitive areas such as the Oxford Meadows, Cothill Fen and Wytham Woods. If it goes around the South it has the potential to impact on areas of nature conservation interest south and southeast of Oxford - although the omission of sub-corridor B2 assists in reducing direct impacts on some important designated sites in this area.
In Buckinghamshire, it will affect the former Royal Hunting Forest of Bernwood and the Upper Ray Valley, and this is also where the routes around Oxford will converge. The Forest of Bernwood is characterised by a mosaic of ancient woodlands, species-rich grassland, open water, scrub and hedgerows. It is one of the most undisturbed and wildlife-rich areas of Buckinghamshire.
The Upper Ray Valley, described as one of the most important areas of lowland meadow and grazing marsh in south east England, and where rare waders breed, is at risk. Also at risk are the ancient woodlands in the vicinity of Calvert, including Finemere Wood, home to one of the few known populations of the rare Bechstein’s bat in Britain, and the old hedgerows that support rare black and brown hairstreak butterflies. New towns or even a city might be proposed in this area which would have devastating effects on habitats and wildlife.
Is BBOWT opposed to the Expressway/Growth Arc?
We are not opposed to development in principle but we are completely opposed to the process by which the corridor has been selected and believe that the rationale provided for the Expressway has not been sufficient. We are therefore calling for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which would result in the government needing to justify an Expressway balancing the needs of society, economy and the environment.
It is because of the failure to follow due process and to conduct an SEA that BBOWT has launched a legal challenge against the government. We will be prepared to go to Judicial Review if necessary.
Where are people supposed to live if you oppose house building?
While we recognise the need for new housing in our area, we simply cannot accept an approach that fails to consider our precious local places and local wildlife. The area covered by ‘Corridor B’ is home to some wonderful wildlife and wild places (see above). BBOWT works closely with local authorities to try and ensure that new houses are built in places that will have a minimal impact on local wildlife.
Where exactly will the Expressway be built?
All we know at the moment is that it will be in Corridor B1 or B3 (sub-corridors within Corridor B). The Department for Transport ruled out Corridor B2, which runs along the middle of Corridor B, when it made its announcement on 12 September.
Highways England’s website says, ‘We have rejected Corridor B2, whilst it offers similar benefits at a similar predicted cost to B3, the environmental impacts around the Horspath and Wheatley areas are substantially more difficult to overcome. There are also a number of significant constraints as the corridor heads north toward Bicester, including Otmoor Nature Reserve’. For more information, see the Highways England Oxford to Cambridge Corridor Overview Booklet.
The government says there will be a public consultation in autumn 2019 about the details of the route.
What is the timescale for building the Expressway?
According to Highways England’s website there will be a public consultation in autumn 2019 about route options within the selected corridor, and an announcement about the preferred route in 2020. It also states that construction will begin in 2025, and construction will be completed in 2030.
Why isn’t BBOWT a member of the No to the Expressway Alliance?
We share some of the concerns of the Alliance but not necessarily all of them, so we believe it is better to retain an independent voice on the matter. We are focusing our efforts on the legal challenge and specifically the impact on wildlife.
What can I do to help?
If you would like to support our legal challenge against the government, we would be so grateful if you could donate to our fundraising appeal.
We are so encouraged and moved by how many people have asked us this question. Thank you!
Last updated 16 November 2018
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