Oxfordshire County Council is to press ahead with a revised agreement to deliver the £296 million HIF1 transport network – but the matter is still splitting leading councillors.
The Didcot Garden Town housing infrastructure programme is a combination of four projects to ensure there is the capacity to connect 12,000 houses set to be built to the south of Oxford.
The project has been in the offing since 2019, when the county was run by the Conservatives with the Fair Deal Alliance, the coalition of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens that took power in 2021, inheriting several problems.
The county is responsible for extra costs, which could run into tens of millions of pounds due to construction delays and inflation at a 40-year high.
Councillors say the road-dominated proposals do not marry up with the county’s environmental, active travel or public transport ambitions and will encourage people taking up these homes to remain dependent on car ownership.
They argue the whole scheme should be reconsidered, but in recent negotiations, Homes England would not extend the availability period for funding beyond March 2026. The reason suggested in the council’s report was that it “would change the core provisions in the agreement and the wider implications on the national HIF programme”.
However, grant funding has been increased by 10 per cent – £21.8 million – to mitigate spiralling costs, and the council has been granted “flexibility, subject to timescale and costs, to design and deliver infrastructure that will reduce the carbon impact and the need to travel by car”.
Opponents vehemently argued that the spike in inflation could significantly exceed the current cost projection of £296 million, but the council will be informing Homes England of its intention to cap at £30 million its own borrowing to cover any shortfall.
Measures to mitigate cost increases include “further value engineering opportunities” and “reducing elements that can be delivered through other means” with unfunded overspends “triggering a decision to stop any further work on that element of the scheme”.
Crucially, Homes England cannot claw back funds if work stops due to a lack of funds, provided the council has acted in “good faith”.
With all these factors coming into play, council officers recommended progressing rather than backing away from the project altogether, thereby losing the funding and jeopardising some of the 12,000 homes, or delaying for more negotiation and risk missing the funding deadline.
Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the county’s cabinet member for finance, said: “I believe we have secured lower financial risk to Oxfordshire County Council as a consequence of the steps that have been taken, and I am content on financial grounds to be supporting this project.”
County leader Councillor Liz Leffman (Lib Dem, Charlbury & Wychwood) said: “It is very clear there are some differences of opinion between cabinet members, which is not surprising.
“We have inherited this scheme from a previous administration, and I think none of us would have started quite where we are with the option of something different.
“I have had many conversations with colleagues in South (South Oxfordshire District Council) and Vale (Vale of White Horse District Council) who are very anxious to see some infrastructure put in place to support the housing that they are having to build, in particular around Didcot.
“We do run an environmental, social and financial risk in taking this on, but I am confident, given the work that has gone into this so far, that we have a vision for how we can build this scheme which is very different from that of our predecessors and more in line with what we want to do as an administration.
“I am confident we can build that. We have to be optimistic that we can, and we have to be determined to do it.”
About information about the scheme
There are four separate elements that make up the HIF1 Didcot and surrounding areas project, which aims to provide more sustainable travel options in and around Didcot, as well as reducing a legacy of congestion in the surrounding villages and improving air quality and noise levels.
The scheme will provide 19.2 km of high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure and connect employment sites with Didcot, surrounding villages and existing walking and cycling routes.
Scheme 1: Widening of the A4130
The creation of a dual carriageway east of Milton Interchange with 1.6km of high-quality and segregated walking and cycling facilities, linking to the future development at Valley Park and Didcot Science Bridge.
Scheme 2: Didcot Science Bridge
A new single carriageway bridge over the A4130, Great Western Main Line, and Milton Road connecting to a new link road through the former Didcot A Power Station. The scheme connects with the Northern Perimeter north of Purchas Road roundabout. High-quality and segregated cycling and pedestrian facilities will be provided along its length.
Scheme 3: Didcot to Culham river crossing
A new single carriageway link road between the A4130 at Didcot and the A415 at Culham, with high quality and segregated walking and cycling facilities. It will include a new bridge over the Appleford Railway sidings and a new bridge over the River Thames.
Scheme 4: Clifton Hampden bypass
A new single carriageway link road between the A415 at Culham and the B4015 to the north of Clifton Hampden, with shared-use walking and cycling facilities.
The scheme will also provide opportunities for more direct, faster and more reliable bus routes. Eighteen new bus stops will increase the accessibility and catchment of the existing bus services in the area whilst also catering for new or improved services in the future.
This investment will also support an estimated 880,000sq feet of warehouse and office space and 20,000 new jobs in the local area and unlock delivery of more than 11,000 new homes across 12 separate sites in both South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse districts, including approximately 4,200 affordable homes.
Views from Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet
Approval at the county council’s cabinet meeting on 21 June 2022 follows its agreement in February to allocate additional funding to the project as part of its budget setting process.
This funding will be combined with further investment from Homes England and the Oxfordshire LEP to deliver the project by mid-2026, following successful discussions.
Homes England have also agreed that the council can make significant improvements to the sustainability of the scheme during the next phase of design.
In addition, Cabinet heard that the county council had secured assurances from Homes England that it would work in partnership to identify additional funding sources or re-scope the project during the funding period, should it be required in exceptional circumstances.
The Cabinet agreed to provide a maximum of £30m in additional funding to the scheme, and to write to Homes England to make clear there could be no further contribution from Oxfordshire County Council.
Councillor Duncan Enright, Cabinet Member for Travel and Development Strategy, said: “We’ve reached a vital point in the delivery of this scheme, and I’m delighted that we’ve been able to work closely with our partners to agree new funding arrangements and timescales to take this project forward.
“Didcot is a growing community. We know the importance of this project – not just to support new housing and employment opportunities but to help reduce congestion and provide real sustainable travel options for people by improving walking and cycling connectivity and improving bus journey times.”
“Oxfordshire needs a modern, efficient, reliable, affordable and sustainable transport system. The cost of congestion is too high. We can’t spend all of our lives stuck in traffic jams, so we have to rethink the way that people move around the county.
“We have been working to make this an exemplar scheme in environmental terms - with additional biodiversity gain, reduced embedded carbon and a flexible use of the route for future transport modes all being explored.”
The planning application for the scheme was submitted in November 2021, with a planning decision anticipated in the late summer.