Oxfordshire could be so different and was so different not very long ago. In the novel Larkrise to Candleford, the story of a very different Oxfordshire is told: one in which poverty was widespread but where the local population were self-sufficient. Progress improves lives, but if planned badly it can also accelerate pollution and produce an economically unequal and socially dislocated society. Today Juniper Hill – near where the novel was based – is too expensive an area for locals to afford to live; it is certainly not self-sufficient, being part of a car-based culture where the value of land is directly related to proximity to the carbon-emitting M40; and most of Oxfordshire’s adults can no longer afford to live near to where they work. Homes have been built far away from workplaces.

Giant car parks surround the city of Oxford, making its buses amongst the most polluting in the country, once the carbon required to drive a car to the park-and-ride is factored in. The buses themselves may be low emitting, but the carbon taken to drive a car to the park-and-ride can be great. Investment goes more into improving roads than expanding cycling, and bus subsidies have recently been removed due to government spending cuts. Too many people still live in leaky cold homes with all the physical and mental health problems this entails.

We all produce the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change through the energy we use to heat and light our homes, to cook and wash, to power our transport, to produce our food and to recycle our waste. But affluent residents produce far more than those on lower incomes because they fly (on holiday), drive more and consume more energy in their homes and in other aspects of their lifestyles. A map of emissions is almost identical to a map of wealth.

All that is the bad news; there is also much good news. Oxfordshire contains a disproportionate number of people who care about issues such as the environment for a county of its size. Numerous schemes are promoted, the universities are hotbeds of both environmental activism and research; the county is also home to leading environmental campaigners and journalists.

Oxfordshire has the potential to change. There is huge demand among the workforce of the city to live in and around the city rather than having to commute by car every day just to go to work. Oxfordshire is a beautiful county, most of which is not accessible to the public. If the land were opened up and the right to roam introduced – as it has been elsewhere in England – people from the county would not have to travel away so often for recreation or to go on holiday.

Dorling-Map2

Oxfordshire’s land is mostly flat, so far more people could cycle and far more public transport could be provided that even those living on the most austerity-restricted budget could afford. Rail is much safer than buses, but buses are safer than cars, and almost no one is ever killed who is hit by a bike. Oxford could be the Freiberg of England. Oxfordshire could be a truly green county. Freiberg is the greenest large city in Germany. The state it sits in, Baden-Württemberg, was a Conservative led state, like the English home counties, but its people voted to be more green after 2011.

Both the wind and the willows could provide far more of its energy. Oxfordshire’s kitchens could be far less wasteful, its people could recycle far more and consume far less of what they are enticed to buy … but quickly throw away. People’s homes could be warmer and cosier with lower fuel bills. So much more is possible; so much more is just waiting to happen.

Read more “The Wind and The Willows” or listen to a short talk about how the future could be different: