Unholy row over Church's development plans for allotments

An unholy row has broken out over plans to develop a series of allotments, near Bicester in Oxfordshire, and build car parking and office space.

The site has been an allotment since 1839 - one of the oldest in the country, and campaigners feel it should be conserved for that very reason.

However, the Diocese of Oxford, which owns the site, has other views. While the allotment holders, or diggers as they call themselves, wish to plough the fields, the Church has told them to scatter.

The row began in April when a sign was erected saying:"These allotments are managed by Carter Jonas LLP on behalf of the Oxford Diocesan Board of Finance -- all enquiries should be directed to Carter Jonas LLP."

Shortly after that, the diggers received a letter from the Diocese of Oxford saying that a planning application had been submitted and if they didn't vacate the land, they would be sued.

It refers to the allotment holders as "squatters."

Local resident Lawrence Webb has been leading the fight to save the allotments. He said: "The church is bullying us and threatening to ruin us if we don't give up our fight. Until now they have not written to us or listened to our pleas. We have support from the parish council, our MP, our MEP, the town council, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and even Monty Don, but they won't even talk to us, except to threaten us."

For its part, the church says that it has always traditionally held land "for the purpose of paying the stipend of its clergy."

A statement from its website says: "The income from this land, known as Glebe, plays an important role in relieving the financial burden on local churches. It is also charitable land, which means that the Church, like any other charity, is required in law to make the best use of this land to provide income to pay the clergy in the Diocese."

"It is the local authority, not the Church, who decides on the future use to which land should be put. The Glebe land in question was designated for 'Employment generating development' in the Adopted Local Plan 1996, and the Glebe Committee at the Diocese of Oxford has been considering how it could achieve this."

It goes on to say that: "The allotment holders currently occupying the land are doing so illegally and notices have been served on them to quit."

The Diocese itself has strong environmental policies and aims to reduce greenhouse gases, the bishop of Oxford has an electric car, it has a carbon dioxide reduction policy, and close links with many environmental groups.

However, on this issue, it looks like it will not be swayed.

Now, campaigners led by Webb have written a letter of objection to the local planning authority, Cherwell District Council, and collected 130+ more letters objecting to the church's application to get outline planning permission for business units on the site.

"The church claims to be environmentally conscious, but concrete, as used in building, produces far more CO2 than allotments - we could have a small woodland area here if it would help their carbon reduction plan, but nobody will even discuss it with us," Webb said.

"We are extremely upset by the church's plan to destroy the allotment. If they go ahead it shows that their concerns for the environment and the community, are hypocritical."

David Hopkins



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