Pulling into the Oxfordshire town of Bicester from the M40, there are few pretty Cotswolds cottages to be seen. Instead there are coachloads of Chinese tourists flocking to a retail park, next to a building site soon to become a development of 1,000 homes.
Advertised in China as a discount destination for Burberry and Barbour lovers, Bicester is already one of the south of England’s fastest growing towns. And that speed of change is only going to increase after it was selected by the Coalition as the site for a new garden city of 13,000 homes.
Retired local couple Ed and Angela Hamill spoke for many in the town, however, when they attacked the plans for their neighbourhood to become part of the answer to Britain’s housing shortage.
“We came here 10 years ago precisely because it was quiet and undeveloped,” said Mr Hamill. “We’ve already had to accept the awful retail outlet and the traffic that comes with it, then a new eco town here and now this.
“Our worry is that the infrastructure, especially the roads which are often jammed, won’t be able to cope.”
Close to several military bases, Bicester has seen rapid development in recent years and the diggers are already at work on several new housing developments nearby, including the biggest self-build project in the country.
There’s also a new train link to London in the pipeline, which locals hope will alleviate traffic problems in a town where more than 60 per cent of the population travel out of the area to work. Shop worker Lucy Hayes said: “Traffic is already a big problem; I live on the edge of the town by Bicester Village and Black Friday was a disaster. It was gridlocked for hours.”
The new plans were announced by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary of the Treasury, who said the new garden city would be part of a £2bn commitment to build 55,000 homes a year by 2020.
Of that money, Bicester is set to get around £100m and follow Ebbsfleet in Kent to reach garden city status. It follows in the footsteps of Victorian visionary Ebenezer Howard’s approach in places like Letchworth Garden City, where wide streets and open spaces are considered hallmarks of its urban design.
That prospect was welcomed on the town’s high street by Monica Perinova. The 30-year-old has run the Bean Around the World café in the town square since the summer after moving to Bicester from Slovakia six years ago.
“Of course we are happy to see new customers and a new train link to London bringing families,” she said. “We’ve already got plans to renovate the café and expand.”
Local council leader Barry Wood said the money from central government will also provide funding for new schools. But even estate agents such as Jon Warrell are cynical. “We always knew at least 10,000 homes were planned and most already had planning consent, either at the new eco town or at the Kingsmere development on the edge of town,” he said. “As far as I can see these homes aren’t actually new.”
In a town where traffic is the biggest complaint, the money will at least – the council hopes – fund a new motorway junction on the nearby M40 motorway. More Chinese tourists may be on their way.