Introducing the Oxfordshire Plan 2050

Natural and built environment context

12 Oxfordshire has an attractive and diverse urban and rural landscape. The underlying geology criss-crossed by eight river systems including the Thames and its tributaries combined with a long history of agricultural use gives the County a gentle, yet complex, landscape character. In addition to extensive areas of farmland the county supports important wildlife habitats including woodlands, wetlands and riverside meadows and the means for active travel and recreation using the public rights of way and accessible countryside and greenspace network.

13 Many parts of the county are protected at national and international level for their nature conservation value. Oxfordshire has 7 Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) that fall partly or entirely within the county. These are Oxford Meadows, Cothill Fen, Little Wittenham, Aston Rowant, Chilterns Beechwoods, Hackpen Hill and Hartslock Wood. There are 111 Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Oxfordshire, covering 4,495 hectares, which are protected at national level representative of the country's best habitats. There are many other sites identified for their ecological and geological interest including 362 Local Wildlife Sites and 46 Local Geological Sites.

14 Oxfordshire has many protected and highly valued landscapes, including the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Cotswolds AONB and the North Wessex Downs AONB. The county also has a wealth of built environment assets. The county's historic market towns, picturesque villages and Oxford's dreaming spires draw in visitors from around the world. There are around 13,000 listed buildings and structures in Oxfordshire and over 200 conservation areas. There is a world heritage site at Blenheim Palace and many designated and non-designated heritage assets throughout the county.

15 Oxfordshire's natural environment provides the setting for the city of Oxford and the county's towns and villages and provides places for leisure and recreation. The natural environment also provides a wide range of ecosystems services that benefit people including clean air, fresh water, surface water management and flood alleviation, food and forestry products, carbon capture and storage and the potential for renewable energy generation. There is a strong link between the natural environment and the health and well-being of people in Oxfordshire. The extent and condition of many of our environmental assets has been declining over the course of decades, with major challenges including climate change, air and water pollution, land contamination, fragmentation of habitats and a decline in biodiversity.

16 The Oxford Green Belt covers a significant area of the county. Green Belt is not a designation that recognises inherent biodiversity or landscape value in the same way as SSSI's or AONB's, but is designed to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence. The Oxfordshire Plan offers an opportunity to assess the overall Oxford Green Belt strategy.

17 The future requirement for water in the Thames Water catchment area is likely to be very much greater than they are today due to an increasing population and to support economic growth. The impact of climate change means that there is a need to protect the environment and strengthen our resilience to more severe drought.